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Nuclear Industry Safety

Volume 528: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change if he will make a statement on the implications of the Weightman report. [Interruption.]

The Energy and Climate Change Secretary will answer the urgent question on behalf of the Government. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the Secretary of State the courtesy of a decent hearing.

Earlier today I laid before the House the chief nuclear inspector’s interim report on the events at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site in March. Dr Weightman’s final report is due in September. Safety is, and will continue to be, our No. 1 priority, and I believe that it is vital that the regulators and industry continue to adhere to the principle of continuous improvement for all existing and future nuclear sites and facilities. Dr Weightman has drawn a number of conclusions. He states:

“The direct causes of the nuclear accident, a magnitude 9 earthquake and the associated 14 metre high tsunami, are far beyond the most extreme…events that the UK would be expected to experience.”

In that respect, he concludes that there is

“no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK.”

Nevertheless, Dr Weightman notes:

“severe events can occur from other causes and learning from events is fundamental to…the robustness of”

our nuclear safety arrangements. I can therefore confirm that once further work on the recommendations is completed, any proposed improvements to safety arrangements will be considered and implemented in line with our normal regulatory approach to nuclear safety.

The interim report also identifies various matters that should be reviewed to improve the safety of the UK nuclear industry. I consider it an absolute priority that the regulators, industry and Government should act responsibly to learn from the 26 recommendations in today’s report and respond to them within one month. My officials will review the interim report carefully, but from my discussions with Dr Weightman, I see no reason why we should not proceed with our current policy—that nuclear can be part of the future energy mix, as it is today— providing that there is no public subsidy. The interim report does not identify any implications for the strategic siting or assessment of new reactors, and I do not believe that the final report will either. Subject to careful consideration of the detail of Dr Weightman’s interim report, I intend to bring forward the energy national policy statement for ratification as soon as possible. I strongly welcome Dr Weightman’s interim report. I encourage the regulators to work closely with industry and other partners to take the recommendations forward, and I look forward to receiving the final report in the autumn.

The nightmare of Fukushima continues and intensifies. In the past seven days, the no-go area has been extended from 20 km to 30 km, and the residents of the towns of Kawamata and Iitate have been expelled from their homes. There is now proof that the greatly feared meltdown has taken place, and it is out of control. This is all in the past seven days. It is not possible in just eight weeks to make any assessment of the extent of this terrifying event, but that is what the Government have tried to do. This is not about science; this is about spin and PR. The whole reason for putting out the report so prematurely is to shore up collapsing public opinion and investor opinion.

Of course Britain is not Japan, as the report says, but there have been tsunamis here too. There was one that affected my constituency, destroying all human and animal life, and that was on the Severn estuary, where several nuclear power stations are placed. Our threat comes from two possibilities: a terrorist attack, and especially an attack by air, or a unique climatic event. Sadly, unique climatic events are happening regularly throughout the world and are more likely to happen in future because of the climate change that is afore us. The residents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were all assured of the absolute safety of the installations. What Weightman does is give false reassurances for commercial reasons, to suit the Government’s programme. This report has been produced in haste. We may regret at leisure shoring up this unnecessary, subsidised form of energy creation, which the public, because of their well-founded fears, might in future prevent from being built. It is right that we should look again at the lessons of Fukushima. We do not know what they are at the moment. We should pause and look to developing the safe renewables that are inexhaustible, British and sustainable.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing opposition to nuclear power and his concern, interest and expertise in these issues, but I think he has gone too far in impugning the integrity of the chief nuclear inspector. I am not a scientist, but I have had a number of meetings with Dr Weightman, and I am absolutely convinced that he is an entirely independent, well-respected professional. Indeed, he is so well respected that after I asked him to conduct the inquiry and make his recommendations, he was subsequently approached by the International Atomic Energy Agency to lead the international inquiry into Fukushima. It beggars belief not to recognise his standing in the international community and his independence. This is a fact-based and evidence-based report. My concern has always been to base our policy on the facts and the evidence, and I think that the report does that.

The hon. Gentleman raised two specific points. He will find that I entirely agree with him on extreme weather events. It is absolutely essential that all our critical energy infrastructure needs to be proof against such events, not just the nuclear facilities. On page 97 of the report, he will find a useful table that summarises the extent to which our existing nuclear power stations are prepared against seismic hazards and flood heights. The hon. Gentleman’s description of our vulnerability on this front simply does not accord with the facts as set out in Dr Weightman’s report. First and foremost, we do not have the same reactor design. Secondly, we are not subject to earthquakes of anything like the same magnitude. The earthquake that so unfortunately hit Japan was 65,000 times stronger than the largest earthquake ever recorded in British territorial areas, which was centred on Dogger Bank in 1931. The situation is therefore entirely different. The hon. Gentleman will also see a discussion in the report about the vulnerability to tsunamis, and about whether the flood defence heights set out for each of the power stations on page 97 are adequate, and the conclusions stand.

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of security against terrorist attack. This Government have been very careful to improve the security arrangements in our nuclear facilities since we came into office a little over a year ago, and we will continue to do so.

We, too, welcome the report. Safety in the nuclear industry is of paramount importance, and it is worth noting that the UK has a good safety record. I welcome Mike Weightman’s view that we need to be continually vigilant in that regard. Nuclear is clearly crucial to security of supply in a low-carbon economy, especially in the light of yesterday’s decision. What is the Secretary of State now doing to ensure that the nuclear programme is still on track? When will we see new plant in this country? Will he be pressing ahead with the national policy statements over the summer, or will he wait for the final report in the autumn? Will the lifespan of the existing nuclear stations be extended as coal-fired power stations go off-line? Will he step up his efforts to boost renewable energy to fill the emerging energy gap? That is an area in which we have seen a lack of action from the Government. Finally, although the Secretary of State keeps denying the subsidy issue, to hide his embarrassment, will he acknowledge the need for market support to ensure that we have safe new nuclear in this country as soon as possible?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. Clearly, there has been a delay in the new nuclear programme preparations as a result of Dr Weightman’s report, and I signalled that we needed to do that when I asked Dr Weightman to look at this matter. I am determined, as are the whole Government, to base our evidence on fact, rather than on emotional, knee-jerk responses, which would be entirely inappropriate given the importance of the issues. We will bring forward the energy national policy statements as soon as we can, and I would very much hope that we will be able to catch up over the next few months and years following the delay. As I mentioned in the House yesterday, we have already begun work at Hinckley Point, where EDF is preparing the earthworks for the first of the new nuclear reactors. I am keen to deliver on the commitment in the coalition Government programme that new nuclear should, subject to the proviso that there is no public subsidy, have a place in our energy mix.

I am not going to take any lectures on renewable energy from the hon. Lady. Our inheritance was to be 25th out of 27 European Union member states for installed renewable capacity. We are in the dunce’s corner as a result of 13 years of Labour policy, so the best commitment I can make is to say that over the next few years we are absolutely determined to be the fastest improving pupil in the class.

On the hon. Lady’s final point, I set out in October a very clear statement about public subsidies. She has to recognise that there is an enormous difference; money such as that available under the European Union emissions trading scheme penalises activities that generate carbon and therefore implicitly subsidises activities that do not generate carbon, and is designed to correct what Lord Stern has described as

“the greatest market failure of all time”.

On that basis, we will continue to have policies that encourage low-carbon alternatives, but there will be no support to nuclear; it is a mature industry and there is no justification for extra support.

Order. There is considerable interest, but the House is under real time pressure today, with a statement to follow before the remaining stages of an important Bill. Economy in questions and answers alike is of the essence.

Having discussed the Fukushima problems with the Japanese, I know that they have concluded that not only did the reactor need to be built stronger to withstand the extreme climatic conditions, but that the primary weakness was that there was no secondary power source to circulate the water to keep the nuclear core cool. However, if they can design out those problems, they are perfectly happy in principle to build new nuclear power stations. Should we not take some lessons from those statements?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The lessons from Japan are extraordinary. First of all, the earthquake, however terrible and powerful, did not damage the reactors. The damage came through the subsequent tsunami, which flooded the secondary cooling system and made it inoperable. It shifted away the diesel supplies for the back-up generating plant. That is precisely why it is so important to look at these secondary systems and ensure that they are proof against any extreme weather events in this country.

The Secretary of State referred to a raft of recommendations in the report, which he said the Government would accept. I have not read the report, but does he have any idea of the cost of those recommendations and who will pay for them?

It is too early to assess the likely cost. I merely point out that, as far as any new nuclear programme is concerned, we are still at the stage where negotiations are going on between the regulators and the companies interested in providing new reactors, making it possible to incorporate into the design stage any changes that flow from Dr Weightman’s recommendations. That means that it will be substantially cheaper than it would have been if we were attempting to retrofit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on drawing the attention of the House to this report. On the alleged prematurity of drawing early conclusions from the Weightman report, will the Secretary of State reassure the House that he will keep this matter under review, given that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, this is very much a changing scenario in the Fukushima area?

There may well be longer-term implications. The key conclusions of the interim report relate to the potential choice of sites, for example, and therefore the implications for national policy statements and the new nuclear programme. We now need to look at any implications for the generic design assessments and the design of new nuclear reactors. There may also be longer-term implications for civil contingencies, as Dr Weightman points out. We will very much keep those matters under review.

Once again, the Secretary of State has claimed that new nuclear will not receive a public subsidy. However, in its report on electricity market reform, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change says that the Government’s proposals are designed to give nuclear a substantial subsidy. Can the Secretary of State explain why there is such a difference of view between him and the Select Committee?

The hon. Lady will be aware, even after only a year in the House, that it is not the first time—[Interruption.] I was a colleague of the hon. Lady in the European Parliament for six years, and I have enormous respect for her. However, she will know from her experience both in the European Parliament and here that it is not entirely unknown for Ministers and Select Committees to reach different views on these issues. The key point is that there is a huge difference between offsetting the market failure—which, as Lord Stern pointed out, has been

“the greatest market failure of all time”

—and subsidies directed at a particular way of doing that.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said today. The British nuclear industry adheres to the highest standards of safety and excellence in engineering. To underline that, may I invite the Secretary of State, or a member of his team, to visit Graham Engineering in Colne, which manufactures nuclear waste drums, next time he is in Lancashire?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. We will certainly consider it, and we hope to see him in due course.

I welcome the interim report. It would appear from the flooding risk assessments in conclusion 6 and annexe G that Dr Weightman may not have taken account of recent research at Delft university on eustatic sea level drop. I urge the Secretary of State to investigate that. As for the conclusion on MOX—mixed oxide—can he tell us exactly how the plutonium fallout relates to the testing of nuclear weapons? I believe that after the second world war Japan agreed not to undertake any nuclear weapons testing.

The hon. Gentleman has considerable expertise in this area. As a humble economist, I shall be happy to take away his questions and correspond with him on the answers.

What happened in Japan was clearly a disaster, but we should be considering both the design and the siting of new nuclear reactors. Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to assess whether the report will have any implications for the siting of the proposed new nuclear power stations?

Will the Secretary of State be considering the implications of the additional expense of new nuclear building as a consequence of the Weightman recommendations? Will he also be considering the present target of bringing one new nuclear power station on stream every nine months between 2018 and 2025 in the light of those additional costs? How fundable does he expect the programme to be?

As I said in my response to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), the cost impact may well be limited by the fact that the programme is at the design stage. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government do not propose to subsidise nuclear reactors or to invest public money in them. The funding will be up to private investors, who have shown no lack of desire to finance a new nuclear programme.

Every time I go home to my village of Westleton, I see the white dome of Sizewell B. My local energy company is very concerned about safety, and is not at all complacent. I am sure that it will welcome the additional review.

On the matter of nuclear industry safety, the newly formed Office for Nuclear Regulation is part of the Health and Safety Executive, which reports to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would make sense to transfer responsibility for the ONR to his own Department, so that all nuclear matters can be—so to speak—under one roof?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and, in particular, for the benefit of her scientific background. The first read-out of our nuclear regulatory system produced very good results in comparison with those in other countries, and we were recently given a clean bill of health by the IAEA inspection team. The system is very independent: for example, in the event of a hazard, our regulators are able to shut down the facility immediately with no political sign-off. We have agreed that the Office for Nuclear Regulation will be set up statutorily as an independent body, which is entirely appropriate.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge and respect the fact that planning consent on nuclear issues is devolved, and that under the newly re-elected Scottish National party Government, there will be no new nuclear power stations in Scotland?

In parallel with the Weightman report, the Council of the European Union has requested that national regulators carry out stress tests on nuclear power stations. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the development of those tests, and on when the results are likely to be reported?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), discussed the stress tests recently at an informal EU Energy Council meeting in Hungary, and during bilateral meetings with Commissioner Günther Oettinger. Good progress is being made in defining the tests, and I believe that we will be in a position to make an announcement shortly.

However much the Secretary of State tries to dress it up, is it not the case that the new carbon floor price represents a massive subsidy to the nuclear industry, possibly to the tune of £2 billion? Is that not why the nuclear industry has been lobbying for it?

I return to the point that I made in answer to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). As Lord Stern said, we have experienced the greatest market failure of all time. We will be able to provide the incentives that will lead all of us, in the private and public sectors, to change our behaviour only if we offset that market failure by incorporating the costs. What there will not be is any subsidy for the nuclear industry.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will confirm that a magnitude 9 earthquake hit western Europe in its not too recent history, and that the consequent tsunami crossed territorial maritime boundaries and hit the United Kingdom. Given evacuation and compensation bills running into tens of billions of pounds, and sea contamination at 18,000 times the safe limit, is not the real lesson of Fukushima that in the event of an unpredictable catastrophe of any kind, nuclear is the worst possible power source to be in its path?

There is an enormous difference between our vulnerability to seismic shocks and, sadly, that of the Japanese. That is a matter of record. There is a good discussion of the matter in Dr Weightman’s report, and I urge my hon. Friend to look at it.

I am not opposed to the nuclear industry at all, but has the Secretary of State or his Department been able to ascertain details of the deaths that have taken place recently? It has been indicated that there have been many deaths, but it has not been made clear whether the people who lived nearby were involved in repairs to nuclear reactors. This is not a case of dwelling on tragedy; it is a case of the lessons that we can learn. Can we learn any lessons from the Japanese authorities about how we can improve the safety of people who live close to nuclear reactors?

It is far too early to reach conclusions in relation to the Fukushima accident, but there have been estimates on the basis of past accidents. A comparison of the casualty rates of different generating technologies appeared recently in the New Scientist. We are acutely aware of the issue, but, sadly, casualties and deaths are associated with almost all energy sources.

The Secretary of State may accept that some of us find the inspector's answers to the essential safety questions as predictable as those of Churchill the dog. As for the question of public subsidy, is he telling us that any additional infrastructural protections that arise as a result of the report will be funded not from the public purse but by the nuclear industry, and that the carbon floor price will not be adjusted in the light of those additional costs to provide additional subsidy?

The considerations that are taken into account in setting the carbon price support—and, indeed, all our other measures—are related to our need to mitigate carbon emissions and have nothing to do with the costs of any particular technology. In that sense, we are technology-neutral; we want the lowest possible cost response in making sure we have a low-carbon economy. Whether that points to alternative technologies to nuclear will be a decision for the market, not the Government.