Skip to main content

Nuclear Power Production (Sellafield)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

First, I must say that it is a genuine disappointment that this debate will be overshadowed by a disgraceful attempt by an individual Member to thwart the debate on the Hillsborough tragedy. That should haunt him for the rest of his days.

I should also point out that the title of this debate is slightly incorrect. Although I will address power production and other nuclear-related issues in the course of my remarks, the title should refer to future nuclear fuel production at Sellafield.

I must declare some interests from the outset—somewhere in the region of 16,000 interests, as that is the number of jobs that rely on the Sellafield facility in my constituency. Many people wonder why I spend so much time on these issues, but, frankly, this topic means everything to my constituency. It underpins the economy, the sustainability of population levels, the housing market, our schools, our hospital services, our police service and other public services. In fact, it touches every single facet of west Cumbrian life, as I know the Minister is well aware.

I must place on record my appreciation to the Minister. We have a good working relationship, we share the same understanding of many of the complex issues before us, and I genuinely appreciate the way in which he in particular has continued to prosecute the policies of the British nuclear renaissance established under the last Government. These are issues of the utmost national importance economically, environmentally and in terms of energy security, and they require a concerted, long-term political consensus, particularly with regard to nuclear energy and nuclear policy. We both have to contend with elements in our parties who disagree with that view, but the Minister should know that he and I, and others who share our view, speak for the nation on this issue.

In April 2010 I introduced the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Non-Proliferation and Public Liability) Bill in this House, and I commend it to the Minister as a template for future policy. It deals with how this nation treats the plutonium and uranium dioxide currently stored at Sellafield in my constituency, about which I will talk tonight. I modestly suggest that it is the best Bill of its kind ever to be introduced in this House, although I also fear that it is probably the only Bill of its kind ever to be introduced here.

Tonight’s debate takes place against a backdrop of the Fukushima disaster and the decision taken in August to close the Sellafield MOX plant. As is widely understood, the two issues were closely related, and I repeat again, as a third generation nuclear worker from a community that genuinely understands and appreciates what it is like to be a nuclear community, my incredible respect for and gratitude to all those in Japan who worked to contain those dreadful events, and my respect for all those affected by them. I know that my community and the Sellafield work force stand ready to help that community in whatever way we can.

I know that the decision to close the Sellafield MOX plant was made with a heavy heart and had been discussed for many years. I again pay tribute to the Sellafield MOX plant work force, who are among the most talented and able in the country. They did everything humanly possible to turn that plant around. The Minister has visited the plant, so I know that he knows that. The decision to close the plant is in no way a reflection upon either the work force or their abilities, and I will always work to ensure that they have a meaningful and successful future. At this point, I must also mention the exemplary work done by the Sellafield work force, the Sellafield trade unions and the recently re-established Sellafield Workers Campaign. They undertook vital work in the aftermath of the closure announcement and gave community leadership in that context, and they represent the single best asset that either Sellafield or the nuclear industry has. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will agree to join me in meeting those unions and union representatives very soon to discuss the issues raised in tonight’s debate, as well as other issues.

The Minister will be aware of the importance of the Sellafield MOX plant, not only to my constituency but to west Cumbria and to Cumbria as a whole. It has supported, and currently still supports, thousands of jobs in an area where the economy is based on public spending and the private sector is also based on the contracts let by that publicly funded investment. Indeed, a recent study by The Guardian showed that my constituency was the most heavily reliant on public spending in the country, with about 50.3% of its economy based on public spending.

We know what went wrong at the Sellafield MOX plant. I have held numerous discussions with the people involved in that plant from the very beginning—from the boardroom to the shop floor—and there is a compelling consensus: the design was wrong; there was a drive to over-automate processes in the wake of the MOX data falsification episode; and the best practices, which are usually the simplest practices, from other countries adept at MOX fuel production were not followed. The product produced by the Sellafield MOX plant was excellent and the policy drivers that underpin it are impeccable, but the design and implementation of it in that plant were wrong. That said, the case for using the nation’s stockpiled uranium and plutonium dioxide, whether in a MOX 2 or, theoretically, some other such commercial and industrial utilisation, such as General Electric-Hitachi’s PRISM—power reactor innovative small module—concept is incontrovertible.

The nuclear industry is one of the few industries that can facilitate what I call “sweet-spot economics”. That is the support of industries that, by themselves, can deliver improvements, progress and, in some cases, solutions to some of the most intractable policy problems facing us as a country. In west Cumbria the much admired and increasingly copied energy coast programme, of which a new MOX plant is a part, is based upon the sweet-spot theory. The development of the energy coast will: safeguard west Cumbria’s economic future; help to rebalance the economy; increase the security of our energy supplies; deliver our non-proliferation objectives; and, in many ways, resolve the long-running policy problem of radioactive waste disposal.

The case for MOX 2 is based upon sweet-spot economics as well. There exists at Sellafield tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium dioxide and approximately 115 tonnes of plutonium oxide. The consultations on how to classify that material recently ended and we now all anxiously await the Government’s response.

To put it simply, there is a stark choice to be made. These materials are either waste or assets. If they are classified as waste, it will cost us 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 billons of pounds to the British taxpayer and the nation.

As the Minister is aware, there is real interest from certain parties in developing a new MOX fuel manufacturing plant at Sellafield, and that 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 in a deep geological facility somewhere in this country, perhaps in my constituency. That decision will be entirely in the hands of local people, not politicians, but the status and use of the plutonium and uranium oxides will inevitably have an effect on the process of voluntarism for the deep geological facility and on public attitudes as we go forward. The two are linked in the popular local consciousness, and so they should be.

In addition, the cost of disposing of those materials will easily outstrip the costs of a new MOX facility, even before the additional benefits are considered, but the fundamental question is why we need MOX 2. We need it to strengthen the industrial base that facilitates the nuclear fuel cycle in this country and provides us with the single best chance we have not only of meeting our nuclear non-proliferation objectives but helping other countries, particularly the United States, to meet theirs, too. We need it to help rebalance the British economy. An early intention from Government to proceed with MOX 2 would galvanise the local and national supply chain surrounding new build in west Cumbria and send out precisely the right investment signals at a time of real anxiety.

Does the hon. Gentleman, like many in this House—the majority, I hope—feel that Sellafield is a significant player in the future energy supply for this country? Following on from the urgent question earlier, does he also feel that the issues of health and of safeguarding health and security for the population around there are also paramount, and guaranteed by Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Sadly, I missed the urgent question earlier, as I could have spoken for hours about the misconceptions, lies and myths about not only Sellafield but the nuclear industry. Sellafield is without doubt one of the most important industrial facilities in this country. There is nothing like it. In fact, it is one of the most important industrial facilities anywhere in the developed world. It no longer produces fuel, although we hope to see a site adjacent to Sellafield producing fuel with at least two new nuclear reactors in the very near future.

On the health issues surrounding the nuclear industry, I am a third generation nuclear worker, and the Sellafield work force are probably the most extensively and exhaustively studied and investigated work force anywhere in the world. The community I represent, which I am very proud to be from, has also been studied and investigated exhaustively over decades. There are locks, double locks and triple locks from the Government and a variety of health bodies about the environmental operating standards and public health standards of the nuclear industry. There is no issue to answer, and those who persist in maligning the industry and spreading malicious and false rumours do not only themselves but my community and this industry, which is so important to the country, a huge disservice, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

I was talking about the need for MOX 2 and building the case for it. As well as needing it to rebalance the British economy and the local economy in west Cumbria, we need it to produce the fuel that we need to help power CO2-free electricity generation through nuclear in the future. We need it to secure our national energy supplies better. We need it to expedite better and more quickly the creation of a geological disposal facility. West Cumbria needs it, the country needs it, and my constituents deserve nothing less.

Given the strength of the case, the overwhelming need and the ready ability of industry to develop such a facility, all that is now missing is an affirmative decision from Government and a rapid response to the plutonium consultation paper. The longer that takes, the harder it will be to deliver. The Minister understands haste. After some impassioned discussions, he accepted the logic and brought forward the operational date of a future geological disposal facility from 2040 to 2029, and that is absolutely to his credit.

Speeding up this process is important—and the process of voluntarism is another debate entirely, which is also within the hands of Government, or perhaps, more particularly, in the dead hands of the Treasury. We now need a quick decision from Government on the plutonium consultation. Industry, investors and the supply chain all require some clarity and certainty, as does my local work force and local community. If the Government respond positively to the plutonium consultation as I am asking them to do tonight, I would hope—this is an essential point—that a timetable would accompany such a decision, whereby the development of a new MOX plant could be prosecuted more quickly and the programme delivered effectively, on time and to budget in a way that would be entirely predictable for us all to see.

The need for urgency is real—a point that I consistently made to the last Government as I do to the present Government. If the Minister can provide the required urgency my community can provide the necessary partnership, and collectively we can solve some of the most pressing public policy issues facing our country.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing it and thank him for doing so. The matter is timely and important, not just to his constituency but to our national interest more generally. I am delighted to see on the Front Bench and to congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on their appointments to the important positions in the shadow team.

I am grateful for the chance to clarify the Government’s position on the future of the nuclear industry in Sellafield, although I cannot give the hon. Member for Copeland all of the answers that he seeks today. I begin by acknowledging the vital contribution that the nuclear industry makes to the economic prosperity of west Cumbria, and also the important contribution that the people of Copeland have made and continue to make to Britain’s nuclear heritage. West Cumbria is at the heart of the UK’s nuclear industry and has been since the early days in the 1950s. There is an enormous wealth of nuclear expertise and knowledge, and we want to maintain and use that for the future. The future is promising for west Cumbria as a nuclear community. There are plans for new nuclear to play a part, local authorities are expressing an interest in hosting a geological disposal facility, and decommissioning commitments are ongoing.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are fully focused on working with west Cumbria to deliver these commitments, as we are in ensuring that new nuclear has a role to play in the UK's future energy mix. The hon. Gentleman was kind and generous in his comments and we agree on much, but I hope that he will understand that I was a little disappointed by some of his recent media comments about the pace of movement and progress in these areas. I hope that in the light of the terrible events in Fukushima some months ago he will have welcomed the ongoing commitment that the British Government have shown to nuclear in comparison with many other Governments elsewhere.

The UK has everything to gain from becoming the No. 1 destination to invest in new nuclear. Nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon source of electricity around, so it keeps the bills down and the lights on. The Government have remained committed in their efforts to ensure that the conditions are right for investment in new nuclear in the UK. We are very pleased to build on the legacy that we received in this area from Lord Hutton when he was Secretary of State.

We have made significant progress in the 18 months we have been in power to ensure that the conditions for investment are right. Last October, the Secretary of State made his decision that two nuclear reactor designs should be justified, which was approved by the House by a large majority of 520 votes to 27—one of the largest majorities that we have seen on any issue. In July we designated the national policy statements for energy infrastructure, including a list of suitable sites for nuclear power stations. Those had been delayed as a result of amendments to emissions in the earlier drafts, but I know that the hon. Gentleman was pleased that Sellafield was one of the sites included in that list. We have also created the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and we plan to bring forward legislation to create a new independent statutory body as soon as we can. The regulators are continuing to work with the industry to take forward the generic design assessment process for new reactors. They have published agreed resolution plans for the issues that need to be resolved, and they will also need to factor Dr Weightman's report into their final assessment.

In the coming months the Government will look to finalise the framework governing the financing of decommissioning and waste management for new nuclear power stations. That will ensure that operators make secure financial provision from the outset in line with the Government's policy that there should be no subsidy for new nuclear. We have done all that in the wake of the tragic circumstances at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. We needed to understand the facts before making any decisions. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, to look at what Fukushima means for nuclear energy in Britain and what lessons can be learned.

The UK is most certainly open for business in the nuclear sector. Investors know that EDF Energy will begin preliminary works at Hinkley Point soon and is preparing its planning application as we speak to put to the Infrastructure Planning Commission this autumn. I am also encouraged by the prospects for new nuclear in west Cumbria. The NuGeneration consortium has set out plans to build up to 3.6 GW of new nuclear capacity at Sellafield. We hope that construction will begin in 2015, with commercial operation of a new nuclear power station expected by 2023. Both Iberdrola and GDF SUEZ remain confident about new nuclear in west Cumbria and have increased their stakes in the project. They see no reason why the decision by Scottish and Southern Energy to end its involvement with NuGen should impact on their plans or timetable.

Sellafield is central to the west Cumbrian economy. The Sellafield site has been around for over half a century and has brought many new opportunities to the area. There are opportunities because we are pushing forward scientific frontiers in relation to clean-up and the management of radioactive waste. I congratulate west Cumbria sincerely on taking the lead in decommissioning one of the world’s largest and most complex facilities. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Government have allocated extra resources to that vital work. As I have mentioned, new nuclear power is once again on the agenda and west Cumbria is at the forefront of this, with land earmarked for development next to the Sellafield site. That will potentially provide 5,000 construction jobs at peak and 1,000 long-term operating jobs. We join him in wanting to see the economic success for the community he represents.

Radioactive waste is of course always an issue of great importance when talking about the future of the nuclear industry. West Cumbria has also expressed an interest in the process of geological disposal of radioactive waste. We are working in partnership to explore what that would involve. Should west Cumbria decide to participate in the next stages of the process—I emphasise that, in relation to this matter, we strongly believe in the voluntarist principle—it would show a real commitment to finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal. The community is to be applauded for having the vision to find out more about the reality of that process and for fully considering all the implications, including the potential economic benefits. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the fact that we have sought to speed up the process by a decade.

The geological disposal facility would be a multi-billion pound engineering development on an enormous scale which will employ an average of over 500 people for perhaps a century to come. Apart from the income generated, we expect that there will also be spin-off benefits through associated engineering and supply chain developments and potentially further additional benefits. Therefore, notwithstanding the long-term decommissioning of Sellafield that will see billions of pounds spent on cleaning up the site over the next 100 years, there are potentially major opportunities available to west Cumbria through the nuclear sector.

I now turn to the options for plutonium and the implications for future production of mixed oxide fuel at Sellafield. The future of MOX production at Sellafield can be described primarily by two recent events. The first was the publication in February of the Government’s consultation on the long-term management of the UK’s plutonium—we have the largest stockpile of plutonium in the world. The second was the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s announcement in August that it was to close the existing Sellafield MOX plant. Although both events are to an extent linked, it must be remembered that the Sellafield MOX plant was built to deal with overseas-owned plutonium recovered through reprocessing and was never intended to deal with the UK’s plutonium. A decision to close the SMP was taken by the NDA following a changed commercial risk profile arising from potential delays after the earthquake in Japan and subsequent events.

To ensure that the UK taxpayer did not carry a future financial burden from the SMP, the NDA concluded that the only reasonable course of action was to close the facility at the earliest practical opportunity. It was apparent that the SMP was never going to provide a solution for the large volumes of UK plutonium, which would need to be managed in new facilities. I am very grateful for the realistic approach that the hon. Gentleman has taken on that.

In our consultation on plutonium management we set out three high-level options for dealing with plutonium: continued storage; immobilisation followed by disposal as a waste; and reuse of the plutonium in the form of MOX fuel. The consultation set out at a high level the advantages and disadvantages of each option, but the Government’s preliminary view was that the best prospect of implementing a successful solution lay with the option of reusing MOX as a fuel and, therefore, with seeing its value rather than simply its cost, as the hon. Gentleman rightly called for us to do.

That option was the more technically mature, given that MOX fuel had been successfully fabricated and used in reactors in Europe, and given that by comparison no equally mature immobilisation technology was readily employable. Nevertheless, we recognised that there were still risks with the reuse-as-MOX option, particularly given the poor performance of the Sellafield MOX plant. The poor performance put limitations on throughput, which meant that, even if we wanted to use it, the Sellafield MOX plant would never be able to deal with all the UK’s plutonium.

For that reason, we acknowledged that to implement a reuse solution the Government would need to procure a new MOX plant, but as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the UK also stores significant quantities of overseas-owned plutonium, so pursuing a reuse-as-MOX option for UK plutonium could offer an opportunity for the overseas owners of plutonium currently stored in the UK to have their plutonium managed in the same way.

The Minister is making a series of important and well thought-through points, which I welcome. On overseas materials and foreign waste, could we at some point in the very near future sit down with concerned parties to undertake a scoping exercise with regard to what happens to the waste currently stored in my constituency which, in the event of Scottish independence, would no longer be British waste?

That departs just a little from the subject of the debate, and, although the hon. Gentleman is as determined as I am to see off that threat, we are dealing with an issue that is not going to arise. However, in the event of separation there would clearly be implications for a settlement and they would need to be addressed and resolved. It is premature, however, to sit down and deal with those issues at this stage.

Were we to proceed down the path of a reuse, any new MOX plant would need to learn from the lessons of the past and take into account the experience from overseas. Additionally we anticipate that, for security reasons and to minimise the transportation of plutonium, any new MOX facilities would be located as close to the plutonium as possible and most likely in west Cumbria, which I believe many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would actively welcome. Plutonium management is a high-profile issue that requires appropriate consideration, and it is not a decision that can be taken quickly. The Government are in the process of clearing our response through Cabinet, and we anticipate being in a position to publish our response shortly.

I, like the Prime Minister, have made it clear that nuclear should remain part of the future energy mix, alongside other technologies such as renewable and carbon capture and storage, provided that there is no public subsidy for nuclear, and the Weightman report, published today, provides no grounds to question our approach that nuclear should be part of the energy mix in future, as it is today. The next step on plutonium management is for the Government to publish their response to the consultation paper, and, as I have just said, we are in the process of clearing our response through Cabinet and anticipate being in a position to make an announcement shortly.

We all recognise that nuclear power plays a significant role in the UK’s electricity supply, but that nuclear also results in radioactive waste. West Cumbria has expressed interest in the geological disposal of radioactive waste, and we are working in partnership to explore what that would involve. I pay tribute to the community as a whole, to the hon. Gentleman as their Member of Parliament and to the local authorities for having the vision to find out more about the process and to work very closely with us to see how we can take it forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.