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Nuclear Safety

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 24 March 2011

5. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the nuclear safety regime in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (48542)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the nuclear safety regime in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (48545)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the nuclear safety regime in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (48548)

The International Atomic Energy Agency integrated regulatory review service—IRRS—recently noted that the UK has a mature and transparent regulatory system, an advanced review process, and highly trained, expert and experienced nuclear inspectors. Nevertheless, we take the recent unprecedented events in Japan extremely seriously, and I have asked the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, to provide a report to the Government on the implications and the lessons to be learned for the UK nuclear industry.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I must tell him that a number of residents of Hastings and Rye have written to me, and although they share heartfelt sympathy for the people of Japan, as they live next to Dungeness they now have additional concerns. They want to know what action can be taken to ensure that our country’s nuclear facilities are made even more safe.

Let me reassure the hon. Lady first and foremost that there are very substantial differences between our situation and that in Japan. We refused to authorise the boiling-water reactor type used in Japan when that was proposed for use in the UK. Secondly, we do not, of course, live in an earthquake zone. The strength of the most severe earthquake in the UK was a mere fraction of the strength of that in Japan—the recent Japan earthquake was stronger than the 1931 Dogger Bank earthquake by, I think, a factor of 60,000—and nor do we have the associated tsunamis. We are not complacent, however, and we are looking into this. We do have extreme weather events, and Dr Weightman has asked all our existing nuclear sites to check that they can withstand the extreme weather events that we experience.

With the advent of the electric car, there will clearly be a requirement for much more baseload overnight so that people can recharge their electric cars, which means the case for nuclear power advances quite rapidly. What we need in this country is safe nuclear power. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to ensuring it is produced quickly and safely?

As my hon. Friend knows, the coalition Government’s plans clearly envisage an important role for nuclear. We aim to bring the first new nuclear on stream for 2018. It is our view that new nuclear can play an important part, and unless Dr Weightman’s report gives us any particular reason to reassess that, I see no reason why that should not remain our view.

There are undoubtedly lessons to learn from the tragedy unfolding in Japan, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend says we will learn them. Nevertheless, does he agree that the only realistic way we can meet the expected huge increase in domestic demand for energy is through the domestic production of nuclear power?

As I have just said, our plans clearly envisage an important role for new nuclear. When people visit the departmental website, they can access an interesting pathways model called “My2050”, which allows them to see the effort that would have to be made if we did not have nuclear. We would have to make enormously greater efforts on both renewables and carbon capture and storage. That is physically possible, but the costs would be very substantial.

The nuclear industry is in serious trouble as a result of what has happened in Japan, we are running out of supplies of North sea oil and fighting all over the place in the middle east is massively increasing the price of oil, so is it not time for king coal again?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The entire departmental strategy on energy is to have diverse supplies; it is not to put all our eggs in one basket, be it coal, nuclear or renewables. The reality is that coal will have a role to play in a low-carbon future, as will other diverse supplies.

It is right to review the implications of UK civil nuclear power in the light of what happened in Japan. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is also right to explain that strategic site assessments and generic nuclear installation designs have been approved by this House and by the Government, and that we need not only to make it clear to the public that safety is paramount, but to make it clear to business that it is right to invest in nuclear?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have made it clear in every statement I have been asked to make on this issue that safety is absolutely paramount. That is precisely why I want Dr Mike Weightman to examine all the lessons from Japan, and for us to base any debate on the facts and the evidence, and not on knee-jerk reactions. There have been knee-jerk reactions in other countries, but that is not the right basis for British policy.

It is fascinating hearing the Secretary of State dance around on this issue. I welcome his remarks as far as they go—clearly safety is paramount in nuclear power—but he has made some comments over the past few days and has today failed to be emphatic about the Government’s position on nuclear. Will he make it clear? He has used words—[Interruption.] I can hear chuntering from those on the Government Front Bench. He has used words such as “we envisage a role”; he has pointed again to a study of a future without nuclear on his departmental website; and he has talked in The Observer about an

“80% reduction in emissions…without new nuclear”

if we invest more in renewables. Those are red herring statements. Will he be emphatic and make it clear to investors what the Government’s position is on new nuclear? Will he tell us clearly: is he backing new nuclear?

I do not think investors are under any illusions about the position. At the Nuclear Development Forum, I said very clearly that we continue with the plans as set out in the coalition agreement, and that we envisage a role for new nuclear and want to see new nuclear come on, but that we have to put an emphasis on safety. That is why we commissioned Dr Mike Weightman’s report. I do not anticipate that it will lead to enormous changes, but we will have to wait to see its results and base the debate on the facts.