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Energy: Nuclear Fuel Bank

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What discussions they have held during 2006 with the International Atomic Energy Authority concerning the proposal for a new international nuclear fuel bank.

My Lords, an international nuclear fuel bank is one of a number of proposals put forward as part of IAEA discussions on multilateral nuclear approaches. The UK has played an active role in these discussions. At an IAEA special event in September, we introduced a proposal for an enrichment bond, which has been widely recognised as bold and practical. UK officials recently met members of the IAEA Secretariat to discuss this proposal.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I was mildly surprised to be rung up by her department to be asked what my Question was all about? However, it is serious, given the wide expectation that there will be a renaissance of civil nuclear generation across the world, given that most countries do not have direct access to uranium-enrichment facilities, and given the enthusiastic support of the IAEA for the whole concept and, I might add, the support of our own Prime Minister in a speech in Georgetown on 26 May last year. Why, then, when one reads the international press on this issue, does it seem that the Americans and the Russians are making all the running? Why are the Government not pushing their own view on this and making it public? In short, why are the Government so reluctant to come to come forward with their own proposals in public? I have seen the paper in the Library, but why can we not hear more about it?

My Lords, first, I was not aware that my department had telephoned the noble Lord to ask what his Question was about, but I was delighted to hear the Question in any event. In relation to the UK’s support for these very important proposals, as the noble Lord said, the Prime Minister endorsed them in his speech in May. We have been rather strong advocates of the approach and have made our views known to our partners. However, we want to work on very practical issues. One of those is the bond, which we think can be achieved in tandem with the nuclear fuel bank proposals. We are also having a dialogue with recipient countries. We believe that it is particularly important that recipient countries sign up to these proposals, so we are working quietly on dialogue whenever appropriate.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that her Answer to the noble Lord’s Question bore a striking resemblance to the one given to me at the end of October? Could we not inject a little more urgency into this issue? Can she not give the House something like a road map—a fashionable phrase—towards a decision on this matter with some timing factor? Is it not about time that a senior Minister of this Government set out Britain’s overall policy on non-proliferation matters?

My Lords, I am pleased that the Government have been so consistent in their approach to this Question. At present, the IAEA is assessing a number of proposals, including that on the nuclear fuel bank. In June, it will present a paper to the board of governors outlining the results of its assessment. Quite properly, that assessment will naturally determine our future policy on this issue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the past few weeks, the situation has become considerably more urgent? For example, the Gulf Co-operation Council has decided to embark on a nuclear energy programme; the price of uranium has more than doubled, with the result that all kinds of miners are now coming into the field, many of them in countries which have no effective government; and, finally, there is the Russian decision to supply Iran with nuclear materials. Given all that, does the Minister accept that it is very important that the British Government take an urgent and indeed conspicuous view on the proposals for a fuel bank? Would they consider making a contribution towards financing the administration of such a bank, given that the situation is daily becoming more urgent?

My Lords, I wholly endorse the proposition that it is becoming more urgent to deal with the issue. Of course, we must deal with these urgent matters. Whatever actions are taken, it is important that they are taken with the IAEA and on the basis of its assessment, which will be forthcoming in June. On the financing of a nuclear fuel bank, we await the assessment of the IAEA, which we will have in just five months' time. I agree that the matter is urgent but we must take decisions on the basis of the best knowledge and the best advice we can get.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an imperative part of domestic energy policy is to have secure energy supplies and a balanced source of electricity generation, and that we cannot keep to our Kyoto obligations without a new generation of nuclear generated electricity? In those circumstances, while consistency might be a good thing, a little more speed in making the essential imperative decisions would also be welcome.

My Lords, I entirely agree with the proposition from my noble friend that there must be security of supply and a balanced supply, especially if we are to deliver our Kyoto obligations. The Government will bring forward an energy paper in the not too distant future which will deal with those matters. On the nuclear fuel bank and non-proliferation, it is absolutely right that we await the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Authority, as it has the most knowledge about these important issues and it is a multilateral organisation.

My Lords, the Minister is quite right to say that these are early days. Several different proposals are being considered—I do not know which one the Prime Minister has endorsed. Is the Minister aware of the IAEA’s projection that, whereas now 16 per cent of the world's electricity is produced by nuclear power in about 30 countries, at the moment 27 new nuclear power stations are being constructed? The IAEA believes, with some justification, that there is a huge expansion ahead of carbon-free or at least low-carbon nuclear power around the world. If it is not to lead to great dangers in the proliferation of weapons-grade uranium, that will require a very close and effective monitoring system indeed. Can she reassure us that the British Government take the issue very seriously, as do Japan, America, Russia and the other leading powers and that this is probably the way forward in a world that will be predominantly nuclear as regards electricity generation?

My Lords, I entirely agree that security of supply means increased demand, which means increased fear of proliferation. The Government are working on the issues—I do not want noble Lords to think that we are doing nothing between now and June—and we are working with our colleagues, but we await the assessment of the IAEA before we take action.