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New Nuclear Power Stations

Volume 513: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2010

I am very grateful to have this chance to talk about an issue that of course affects my constituency enormously, as you know Mr Streeter.

The future of nuclear power is vital to my constituency and to the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why I am very grateful to have the chance to debate the issue today and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is here to respond to the debate.

It is no secret that we are running out of capacity to generate electricity. Existing nuclear stations are growing old and they must be replaced within the next seven years or—to be blunt—the lights will start going out. We cannot afford any more delays and I am afraid that, as a nation, we must take decisive action now.

The previous time I raised these matters in Westminster Hall, which was nine months ago, there was a different Government and many attitudes were different from those that exist now. Today I hope that I am preaching to the converted about the necessities and advantages of nuclear power.

In Bridgwater, nuclear power has provided reliable electricity to the grid since 1970 through the four reactors of the A and B stations, two of which, at the A station, have now been decommissioned. The B station has been given a five-year extension and is now owned by EDF Energy. We know that nuclear power works very well and is safe. We have a whole generation of local experts closely involved in the building, management and decommissioning of stations. Last October, we got the go-ahead to create the first nuclear academy in the United Kingdom at Bridgwater college. So there are many positive factors about nuclear power.

Of course, Hinkley Point is far from invisible—nuclear power stations cannot really be hidden. The existing station sits like a concrete castle overlooking the Bristol channel and dominates the skyline in one of the loveliest parts of this country. The plan is to construct a pair of new pressurised water reactors. Such reactors are tried, trusted and used safely all over the world. Two new reactors could pump out enough power to satisfy 4 million customers in the United Kingdom.

I make absolutely no bones about it—this is a massive operation. It will be the biggest ever civil engineering operation in the south-west. It will create 900 permanent jobs and roughly 5,000 people will be needed just to build the new plant. EDF Energy commissioned research into how the work would help the local economy. It estimates that £100 million will be spent every year during the building work and roughly £40 million a year will be spent thereafter, but I ask the Minister—is that enough?

Naturally, we welcome the concept of the new development. Of course we want to have the automatic boost to the local economy that building anything that big would bring, and yes, we need the contractors earning good salaries and spending their money in local shops. Bridgwater is an industrial town and we are very keen on business.

However, as a community, we have every right to ask for something more substantial in return. A nuclear power station is not like a supermarket. It is a gigantic piece of industrial machinery and the new development in my constituency would be slap-bang in the middle of some of England’s loveliest countryside. A fair slice of compensation ought to be in order. Some of it could come in the form of old-fashioned folding money, which would be nice. Some of it could be invested in the local community with sensible, joined-up thinking, which would be nicer still.

Just a few moments ago, I mentioned the nuclear academy at Bridgwater college. Bridgwater college is a remarkable college run by dedicated people who deserve to be at the heart of the work, training the new generation of nuclear experts. You don’t get owt for nowt. Bridgwater college put in the backwork, time and commitment to secure its place in the south-west hub for all nuclear skills training, as part of the nuclear skills academy. It is great to have the college, I am very proud of all its achievements and it has proved its worth, time and again, under the leadership of Fiona McMillan.

As the Minister will be all too aware, spending on education is in the spotlight, not just locally but nationally. Last week, the announcement about the Building Schools for the Future programme dealt a heavy blow in my area; I will come on to the reasoning behind that announcement shortly. We understand the pressures, we know that we must be prudent and we know that the BSF programme was not always very well organised, but Bridgwater college did an excellent job, in the same way that industry in Bridgwater does an excellent job. It produced sensible plans and everybody agreed to them.

Take it from me—cutting back on schools in Bridgwater now or in the future is not the answer to anything. That is especially true because of what we are going to do locally. Cutting back is not the answer if we want to encourage a new generation of professionals, which we must have. It is not the answer if we want to have home-grown nuclear experts, and it is not the answer if, as a Government, we want to have joined-up policy.

Our local schools were ready to sign the relevant documents on the very day that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made his announcement about the BSF programme. Millions of pounds had been invested and a lot of it had come from the nuclear industry. Some of the building work had already begun and it made perfect sense to carry on.

How many other areas are about to build a huge new nuclear power station? How many other areas were as ready as we were with their plans for schools? Other areas were not ready.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I would say that my area is ready. As with the nuclear power station in his constituency, Wylfa nuclear power station in my constituency has been decommissioned and a new build is happening on-site.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the skills that he is talking about are long-term skills to provide a job for life, that they are transferrable throughout the whole energy sector and that they are vital for the “green deal” that this Government are talking about?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman and his point is well made. I think that the proposals for Wylfa are in phase 2 of the proposals for nuclear power. He makes a good point.

As I was saying, the decision about the BSF programme does not add up. These schools in my area were due to be refurbished and built under the private finance initiative system. It was absolutely right that there should have been public investment in a local economy as good as ours.

Later today, I have an appointment to see the Secretary of State for Education and I intend to leave him in no uncertainty about what his announcement means for the programmes in my area that we are now looking at. However, I first want to offer my hon. Friend the Minister a few ideas that might help his thinking and that of his colleagues.

To build a new nuclear power station requires a reliable operating company, a shedload of money, a sensitive planning system and, perhaps above all, the ability to think outside the box. Deciding to put up a power station today means that we are planning for the next 60 to 150 years. It is ridiculous and completely unfair to see such things in terms of the conventional five-year life span of any Parliament. If we do not get this decision right now, we will be blamed by our children, by our grandchildren and, in the case of nuclear, by our great-grandchildren.

Therefore, I am afraid to say that cheeseparing on education with one hand while trying to nurture a skills academy with the other hand does not make sense to me or to anybody else. Everyone agrees that there is still a national deficit—we know that there is—and that there is a real need to be careful with the precious financial resources that we have. Equally, however, everybody knows that there are several ways to skin a cat.

Why will the Government not examine the possibility of using a proportion of the very substantial business rates that EDF Energy will have to pay to meet some of the extra needs of the community? It is not such an outlandish idea and it was mooted publicly just a few days ago by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation. He suggested that some major developments should be allowed to take the lion’s share of local business rates for the first six years of their existence. In terms of EDF Energy, that would mean a very healthy sum indeed to pay back to the community; it could amount to £40 million a year.

One might say that such a proposal is a form of legalised bribery and it sounds like an un-British way of going about things. However, there are quite a few solid examples of community funds that were deliberately established to compensate local people in the wake of major developments.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister knows about the Shetland Charitable Trust, which was set up in 1974 when the huge oil terminal at Sullom Voe was built. Shetland council wanted to claw back money from the oil companies to help to compensate fishermen and because it felt that Sullom Voe was an ugly and unnecessary development. However, little councils do not have any power. Parliament pushed through the Zetland County Council Act 1974 to give Shetland council some muscle. The council now has £200 million in the bank and it shells out up to £13 million every year on special community projects. Sullom Voe is nothing like as heavily populated as Bridgwater and West Somerset. We would like a lot more money because, as the advert says, “We’re worth it”.

Another example is Cumbria, home to Sellafield, a nuclear establishment with even more history than Hinkley. The area is covered by Copeland district council, which negotiated a special deal with the Government in 2007 to get compensation for the inconvenience of looking after the nation’s low-level nuclear waste. As the Minister knows, the deal involved the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority paying £10 million up front plus £1.5 million for every year of waste storage. In addition, the parish of Drigg and Carleton gets an extra £50,000 compensation a year for the next 60 years. That is seriously big money, given that only 600 people live there.

I know of many possible ways to spend such sums in and around Hinkley, in both our district council areas. One facility that we lack, for example, is a decent road that bypasses heavily populated areas and goes straight to the power plant. That is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity given the huge number of lorries required during the plant’s building phase, which will go on for seven years. It is possible to construct a direct link. I congratulate one of my constituents, an engineer named Alan Beasley, who has worked extremely hard to identify a feasible route that would upset the fewest number of people in the area.

We do not yet know what such a scheme might cost, but there are other local sources of money. The Minister might consider having a chat with some of our honourable colleagues about schemes that he could scrap. For instance, the £20 million earmarked for our schools will be used for something else, but £20 million is available next door. The Environment Agency is about to flood the Steart peninsula, which is about 600 yards from the plant at Hinkley. Flooding the peninsula will cost £20 million and is being done to tick boxes in Europe. The official reason is that the flood defences are too old and expensive to keep. Why can we not use that money to help with the nuclear project? The actual reason for the flooding of the peninsula is that regulations and directives on the conservation of wild birds and natural habitats are more important than human beings. I do not think that that is fair. We are all in favour of our feathered friends living happily ever after in the wetlands, but we cannot afford to fork out £20 million for the privilege. If the choice is a genuinely environmental one, a relief road will offer more real environmental benefits than obeying European directives to the last letter.

Like any nuclear power station, Hinkley is a national issue, not just a local one. Our creaking planning system is feeling the strain. The previous Government introduced a wildly extravagant quango called the Infrastructure Planning Commission, where EDF’s plans might have gone for judgment. The new Government have scrapped the IPC and intend to let the Planning Inspectorate take on the task of helping to decide Hinkley’s future. That may look like swapping one quango for another, but if I understand correctly, there will be one fewer quango. However, the complications involved in altering the planning process might lead to more delay, which would not be healthy.

More or less everyone agrees that the bad old days are gone when major projects such as motorways and airports were considered by public inquiries. Good riddance to them. Public inquiries rambled on too long and often failed to reach any definite conclusions. The precise details could not be dealt with because so many activists wanted to argue the moral theories first. That is why years were wasted on the rights and wrongs of aviation rather than on exact plans to expand Heathrow.

Having got rid of the IPC, the Government’s current idea is to let Ministers, advised by the Planning Inspectorate, make the final decision, and perhaps to hold a narrow public inquiry if it is really necessary. However, as far as I can see, the essential ingredient is a national policy statement on nuclear energy, to be ratified by Parliament. Without that, nothing can proceed. I am sorry to say that in July 2010, nine months after I first asked a question about it, we are still here pleading for a national policy statement. Can we please have it soon?

Since I have devoted so much of my speech to money, I ask the Minister to consider another glaring omission from the planning process. France builds nuclear power stations wherever it chooses because landowners and local communities queue up to claim the generous compensation packages on offer. Perhaps it is no accident that EDF Energy, the firm that wants to build Hinkley C and D, is a French company. In my neck of the woods, furious rows are going on about plans to build wind farms. That is not surprising, as the operators are offering pain but no gain to those who happen to live under one. However, in Spain, Denmark and Germany, significant local benefits are built into the fabric of all wind power projects. The companies involved often pay substantial local taxes. All that we have is a woolly voluntary system.

I believe that this Government genuinely want to reform planning for the better, but decent compensation is part and parcel of good planning. I ask the Minister to remember that Hinkley is vital for the nation, and to make it worth while to Somerset to build it.

It is a great pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the debate and leading it with his normal approach of combining passion, vigour, commitment and enthusiasm with addressing the issues directly. He is absolutely right that this is a long-term decision, and we must see it in that context. Our decisions on nuclear will be some of the most important taken on energy policy by this Government. We therefore attach great importance to how those decisions are made and realise that they must pass the test of time.

My hon. Friend is also right to remind us that we are discussing national issues. A development such as Hinkley is of national significance, and it will play an important role in our future electricity generation, if it goes ahead. I totally accept the background to his argument. He raised several issues during his speech that do not relate directly to the work of my Department. I am pleased that he is meeting the Secretary of State this afternoon to discuss Building Schools for the Future and I will be interested to know the outcome. However, I am keen to set out clearly the approach of my Department and the Government to the building of new nuclear.

We set out a clear plan for nuclear in the coalition agreement. We are committed to allowing the construction of new nuclear plants, subject to the normal planning process for major projects and the fact that they should be without public subsidy. We will continue to take forward the national policy statement and the process through Parliament.

New nuclear has a clear role in the energy mix, but we are certainly alive to many people’s concerns about the costs of such activities, so we are absolutely clear that there should be no public subsidy. In that respect, our position is broadly the same as the previous Government’s. It is for private sector energy companies to construct, operate and decommission plants, but it is for the Government to ensure that there is appropriate safety, security and environmental regulation.

We will ensure that the taxpayer is protected now and in the future from such costs. Operators will be required by law from the outset to set aside money to pay for long-term waste management costs. Having considered various possible subsidy issues, we will ensure that the taxpayer is protected. I am encouraged that despite those restrictions, which are some of the toughest in the world, Britain is nevertheless the most exciting place in Europe—perhaps in the world—for the construction of new nuclear plants. Many companies are keen to invest on that basis.

We are also committed to removing barriers to investment. The work of the Office for Nuclear Development has been fundamental to that, as has the nuclear development forum, which considers how to address the practical issues that can present challenges. On that basis, we will drive forward work on planning, regulatory justification, the generic design assessment and waste and decommissioning financing arrangements. The Government are required to undertake regulatory justification. We will take a decision after we have finished considering responses to the recent public consultation on how best to proceed.

On waste and decommissioning financing, we must redouble our efforts to deliver a framework for dealing with the costs that protects the taxpayer and provides both taxpayers and operators with clarity. The consultations on the fixed unit price and waste handling regulations have closed. We are now considering our responses carefully and will respond in due course.

I know that, to the companies proposing plans for reactor designs, the process for the generic design assessment is fundamental. I am encouraged by the nuclear installations inspectorate’s recent comments that it is on course to conclude by June 2011. The Environment Agency is consulting on its preliminary findings.

We have also indicated that there needs to be reform of the nuclear regulator, which must be structured and equipped to meet current and future challenges. In its role as a nuclear regulator, the Health and Safety Executive has responded to those challenges, but I am persuaded that reform is needed to meet the specific challenges of the sector. I want an effective, efficient and independent nuclear regulator to ensure that we have transparency and accountability. Those are some of the big national issues that we have to take into account as we consider how the programme moves forward.

I want to pick up on my hon. Friend’s concerns about the planning system. We have said that we are determined to reform the planning system. The changes made by the previous Government addressed some of the issues about the speed of the process, which they were right to identify, as applications and considerations could sometimes go on for years. They put in place a process to deal with that, but it did not have democratic accountability.

We have decided that national policy statements should continue to be an integral part of the process, but that they will be subject to a substantive vote in Parliament. That will give national policy statements greater democratic legitimacy and reduce the risk of judicial review. Following the consultation on the national policy statements, we were required to take account of the public meetings and the thousands of submissions that were received, which we are currently considering. I assure my hon. Friend that we will set out our further consideration on the NPSs as soon as we can, because we understand how significant the matter is to all those involved in the sector.

My hon. Friend also correctly identified the changes that we intend to make to the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Again, we thought that that organisation lacked democratic legitimacy. The changes will mean that the back-office function and the analytical work carried out on individual applications will be done by a dedicated unit—the major infrastructure planning unit—which will come under the Planning Inspectorate. Instead of the unit’s recommendations going to a competent but, nevertheless, unelected quango, they will go to the Secretary of State.

For those who are concerned about the time scales, I can give a clear assurance that there will be an obligation on the Secretary of State to make a decision within the same time scale under which the IPC would have proceeded, so there will be no delays. Critically, an application under the transitional arrangements will continue under the same jurisdiction in which it started. There is no risk that an application made under the current system will have to be started again from scratch when the changes come into place. We want to make sure that people who are investing know there will be certainty about the time scale in which the process will move forward.

My hon. Friend also talked about business rates. It is proper to debate the wider issue of whether allowing some business rates and new business activities generally to be kept locally is a good way of encouraging local authorities to stimulate business activities in their areas. On energy issues—this picks up on the final part of his speech—we have said that we are keen to build a new relationship between energy installations and the communities that host them. If a community is hosting something such as a wind farm on behalf of the wider interest and not purely for the benefit of that community, it is reasonable to find ways of recognising that.

We want to find new ways of achieving shared ownership so that direct funding returns come into a local community. We also want to consider how the business rates that become payable as a result of that development can be maintained locally for the first few years. We are in discussions with our colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how broadly based that approach can be, because if that same approach were to be applied to a nuclear power facility, as my hon. Friend said, many tens of millions of pounds would come into the local community, which would make a significant contribution towards the infrastructure and educational changes that might be necessary. I am holding continuing discussions with my colleagues in the DCLG on that basis, and we understand the need for early clarity.

On the specific application at Hinkley Point, EDF is carrying out consultations in preparation for submitting a planning application. Realistically, we think that nothing will come forward until this winter or next year, by which time we would expect the national policy statements to have gone through the parliamentary approval process. Given the legal constraints on those issues, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that there is a limit to what I can say at this stage. We have found the consultation process extremely helpful in understanding the wider picture and the views of local communities and national organisations.

The Minister is being as helpful as he can. On the planning issues, he indicated earlier that when the recommendation is made to the Secretary of State, the same time frame that existed under the old system, which did not get a chance to develop, will be used. Will he indicate roughly what period that will involve? If the companies and developers are going to submit this autumn, when is the unit likely to make its recommendation to the Secretary of State, and how long will the Secretary of State take?

A consultation process is ongoing. The expectation of the IPC was three months, and we will be looking at the same sort of period. We will be able to provide further clarity in due course. The other advantage of our approach is that it reduces the risk of judicial review. If someone who is accountable to Parliament—someone who can be called before Select Committees, or who can attend debates in Westminster Hall and elsewhere—has responsibility for a decision, it can clearly be shown that that has received greater democratic scrutiny and it is therefore more robust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset also rightly mentioned nuclear waste. We must focus clearly on how we manage the new generation of nuclear waste and spent fuel, as well as the legacy issues. When the Secretary of State and I visited Sellafield recently, we were both struck by the magnitude of the challenge facing the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It has put in place significant measures to try to deal with nuclear waste and we now have a system that addresses the magnitude of that challenge. However, we must also ensure that measures are in place to deal with the safe disposal of the new waste that will be generated as a result of a new-build programme.

On the hosting of installations, we have been encouraged to note that three local communities in Cumbria have come forward. We are certainly keen to know whether other communities wish to come forward, because we are absolutely committed to a voluntarist approach. The process will not work if it involves the Government saying to a community, in a national lottery style, “It’s going to be you.” The local community must buy into the process, be keen to participate and understand the benefit that it would get from hosting a facility. It has been instructive to see how that has been done elsewhere. A couple of years ago, I went to Sweden to look at how it is carrying out such a process. Two communities were bidding against each other to host a facility because they could see the benefits. It is clear to us that that will be an important part of the process as we go forward.

We recognise that if we are to stimulate the sort of investment that my hon. Friend talked about, further signals to the market will be necessary. There is a great deal that we can do to remove regulatory burdens and streamline the process. However, at the same time, we recognise that there needs to be greater clarity about the carbon price. I am therefore pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his recent Budget that a consultation on the carbon price will take place this autumn, with a view to setting a floor price. Investors need to know what carbon price they will be paying when these plants come online. It is important to state that such a measure is not a subsidy for nuclear, because we believe that the carbon floor price will drive investment in all low-carbon technologies—nuclear, coal with carbon capture, and renewable technologies. That is one of the most important decisions we will make during this Parliament for the sector.

Finally, I shall mention some of the education issues. It is clear that the people who currently work in the nuclear industry are part of an ageing work force—some 80% of today’s industry work force will retire by 2024. Those people have fantastic skill sets and an enormous amount to contribute to the industry, but we must do more to bring a new generation of people into the sector. I am pleased that there have been collaborative projects—for example involving the nuclear advanced manufacturing research centre, to which the Government have committed more than £33 million. That will help to ensure that we take forward opportunities and bring business into the UK supply chain, which we consider to be an important part of the issue. My hon. Friend mentioned the facilities at Bridgwater college. I am glad that it will receive more than £4 million to launch the south-west energy skills centre, which is a specialist nuclear skills training centre. I am also encouraged that EDF already trains about 2,500 people a year nearby at Barnwood, which shows some of the commitment that it is bringing to the sector.

In conclusion, this could be one of the most important energy and industrial sectors for Britain. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is a national issue that needs to be treated as a national challenge and opportunity. I hope that what I have said reassures him of the seriousness with which we are addressing the matter.