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Environment: Nuclear Power Stations

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have undertaken an audit of the total environmental impact, including carbon emissions, of the building of the new range of nuclear power stations.

My Lords, if the Government confirm their preliminary view that industry should be allowed the option of investing in new nuclear power stations, we propose to undertake a strategic environmental assessment as part of a strategic siting assessment of potential locations for new nuclear build.

The Government believe, on that basis of the significant evidence available, that life-cycle carbon emissions from nuclear power stations are about the same as those from wind-generated electricity and greatly lower than carbon emissions from fossil fuel fired generation.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reassuring Answer. In the light of the Stern review and its warning about sea level rise, have the Government done an assessment of the vulnerability of nuclear power stations that have been, and might be, sited in coastal regions?

My Lords, the potential impact of flooding, taking into account climate change trends, would clearly be an important consideration in any future siting assessment for any proposed new nuclear build. Clearly, that would also have to be considered against the potential for coastal sites to be protected from rising sea levels. UK nuclear power stations are designed to protect against flooding or erosion and the Health and Safety Executive requires flood defence plans to be periodically reviewed by site operators. That is carried out against the background of the latest climate change predictions.

My Lords, the Minister has just said that carbon emissions from nuclear power stations are the same as from wind turbines. How can that assertion stand up, when the department has never undertaken a carbon life-cycle study of any nuclear plant? As we are running out of high-grade uranium quite quickly, can the noble Lord say whether any work has been done on the carbon value of low-grade uranium?

My Lords, the assessment of the amount of carbon generated from nuclear power plants is based on calculations that the DTI has made. We have also taken expert advice on this from a number of sources: for example, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Sustainable Development Commission. As I said, in terms of carbon emissions, we assess nuclear to be a low-carbon form of energy. The amount of CO2 emissions generated during the whole life-cycle, including the mining of the uranium which goes into nuclear production, is about as much as that generated by wind energy, and that is an undoubted fact.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that nuclear power is likely to be a medium-term answer to a very long-term, serious problem of climate change? If we do not recognise that, perhaps we had better stop advising people to travel to Europe by train, because 80 per cent of the electricity for the French railways is provided by nuclear generation. If we are wrong on this, we had better start telling the public, but my strongly held view is that we need to pursue this as a short-to medium-term solution to climate change.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, and that is precisely why we have launched a consultation on new nuclear build. The Government’s preliminary view expressed in the energy review last year was, and remains, that nuclear power has a role to play in a future low-carbon energy mix. We are holding a 20-week consultation and want to ensure that all stakeholders, the public, NGOs and other groups have an opportunity to feed into it. We will then take those views into account. My noble friend is also right that, if we are to tackle climate change, we need to look at low-carbon forms of energy production in the future. Nuclear is one option and renewables are another. Some parties opposite talk about nuclear as a last resort but we cannot do that because, ultimately, it is the Government’s responsibility to keep the lights on, and that is what we will do.

My Lords, on the same day that the Government published their consultation paper, they also published a report by Jackson Consulting on the siting of nuclear power stations, so the right reverend Prelate’s Question is indeed relevant. When will the Government be able to express a view on the Jackson report, which is a very important stage in the whole process of building new nuclear power stations?

My Lords, the Jackson report was commissioned by the DTI but it was only one report to be fed into the whole process and does not form part of government policy. As I said, before we look at the location of any nuclear power plants, we will carry out a strategic siting assessment. A strategic environmental assessment will be part of that and, when it comes down to individual sites, there will be a local environmental impact assessment as well. The Jackson report does not form part of government policy; it was merely part of the discussion, and it represents the views of Jackson Consulting.

My Lords, in view of the continuing lack of decision in this matter, would the Minister care to estimate when the building of the first of the new nuclear stations might begin?

My Lords, we have made it clear that it is for the industry to propose, develop and build nuclear power stations. Obviously, that will go through the planning process and will be done without any government subsidy, so it is up to the industry to decide to put forward proposals for particular areas, provided that they meet the strategic siting assessment and environmental aspects that I have talked about. However, one energy company has said that, if the Government make a positive decision by the end of this year, as we intend to do, a new nuclear power station could be up and running by 2017.

My Lords, will the Government consider the environmental consequences of a failure to maintain security of supply? Given our dependence on other countries, particularly Russia, for our energy requirements, should the Government not be a little less laissez-faire and push forward with this programme because of the important strategic and environmental interests of our country?

My Lords, I wish the noble Lord would convince his own party of those views. Security of supply is an important issue. Developing low-carbon forms of generation are designed to meet our future needs. It is a fact that if we do nothing over the next two decades, all our nuclear power stations will close. They currently provide 18 per cent of our electricity—that is against the background of a third of our electricity generating capacity being wound down. By 2020 we will be dependent for up to 80 per cent of our supply on gas imports from abroad. Security of supply is an issue; we need to develop future forms of electricity generation; and we need to ensure that indigenous supplies are maximised so that we do not become dependent on any one country or any one energy form. That is what we outlined in our energy White Paper.