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Energy: Nuclear Industry

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What efforts are being made to respond to the challenge stated on page 113 of the Energy White Paper of January 2008 to meet the need for skilled workers in the nuclear industry.

My Lords, Government and industry recognise the challenge of ensuring that the UK has enough skilled workers to maintain and decommission existing nuclear power stations and build new ones. We are therefore improving science provision in schools, have charged the sector skills council with taking forward a training strategy and have helped set up a national skills academy for nuclear to improve the supply of specialist skills at all levels.

My Lords, that is all very well, but is the Minister aware that many of the major players on this stage, including the universities, see an urgent need for the Government to make decisions that will enable them to take their matters forward? In particular—I have given the Minister’s office notice of this question—is she aware that it is now 18 months since a former Secretary of State at the DTI, Alistair Darling, foreshadowed the creation of a national nuclear laboratory and what was then called a BNFL technology centre, now known as a British technology centre, both of which will have a vital role in nurturing the skills needed for the future of a British nuclear capacity? When are Ministers going to make these decisions and announce them?

My Lords, the national nuclear laboratory was set up to protect the skills of Nexia Solutions, in particular with respect to decommissioning skills. Its major clients are the NDA as well as the site licence company at Sellafield. We will finalise the business case for the national nuclear laboratory when we are clear about the revenue stream from the site licence company. The process for contracting is going on as we speak. In the mean time, Nexia Solutions has been able to carry on providing its vital services to industry and NDA without interruption. We have not seen an interruption in skills, and we anticipate the set-up of a national nuclear laboratory soon.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that time is now of the essence? There is common agreement that we need a new generation of nuclear power stations if we are to meet our Kyoto obligations. Time is not on our side. We waited a long time while the public consultation took place; we have had the White Paper for some time; the Government have agreed their policy; but one thing is certain: we will not get that new generation of nuclear-generating capacity unless we have a skilled workforce in place at the time we need it. That time is now.

My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend. Just today, the first phase of the pre-licensing of the generic design assessment has taken place, and all four of the designs have been successfully passed. The new phase will be announced shortly. We are working with industry as well as with universities to ensure the provision of school leavers and university graduates to deal with the skills issues. It should be noted that the modal age of skills in the nuclear industry is in the 40s, so while the matter is pressing and urgent, we have a little bit of time yet.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that we on these Benches disagree with the remarks of her noble friend regarding the desirability of the nuclear programme. Will she not accept that if we are to continue the nuclear programme, it is common ground across your Lordships’ House that there is a danger that the Government will not do it properly?

My Lords, I can say only that I believe strongly that we will do it properly and that nuclear power is an essential part of the energy mix to ensure that we meet our climate change obligations and have security of supply.

My Lords, does Britain have the capability to design and construct a nuclear power station so that it can come on stream, as the Government’s target has it, in 2020? If it does not, history will judge the Government harshly for the 10 years of delay in making a major strategic decision. Have they not failed to cherish and largely dismantled the capability we need?

My Lords, we have made a full assessment of the issue and believe that we have the capacity to ensure that there is nuclear new build in this country. The design and production of reactors is international, as it was in the case of Sizewell B where the reactor was of American design, produced in France with Japanese components. We have the ability globally to do this and the capacity in the UK manufacturing sector. We expect to win 75 per cent of the capex on nuclear new build.

My Lords, the Minister has told us that the Government require a supply of skilled people trained in physics departments in the universities of this country. Would she agree that the recent cuts in funding to physics departments through the shortfall in the Science and Technology Facilities Council is a mistake and that those cuts should now be reversed?

My Lords, I emphasise that HEFCE has put aside £75 million over the next three years specifically for selected higher education institutions for stem skills related to engineering which are expensive to teach. The Research Council has also put aside funding specifically for nuclear skills.

My Lords, will the Government make sure that the nuclear plants are not only delivered on time but also at the proper cost—not with the usual 300 per cent overruns —and that they produce power economically?

My Lords, what is the Minister doing to increase the supply of A-level maths students? What is she doing about the shortage of Royal Navy nuclear propulsion engineers?

My Lords, we have announced a £140 million strategy over the next three years to support stem skills in schools and have made a statutory entitlement to a course to study two science GCSEs. This involves recruiting and training teachers as well as funding stem awareness with 11,700 engineers acting as role models in schools. On the supply of engineers to the Royal Navy, that is also a part of the HEFCE scheme that I mentioned earlier.