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Nuclear Energy: Electricité de France

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to Electricité de France’s proposed takeover of British Energy to become the principal provider of nuclear energy in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government welcome EDF’s proposed £12.5 billion takeover offer for British Energy. This proposed deal is a milestone in the process for seeing new nuclear build as soon as possible in the UK, and would represent good value for the Government’s stake. We have made clear that our ambition is to have more than one new nuclear operator in the UK, and there are clear indications of an appetite for this in the market.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his Answer. I have long been in favour of increasing nuclear power generation in this country and I recognise that there is no group more experienced in this field than Electricité de France and the EDF Group. However, will the Minister bear in mind that EDF will perhaps have excessive dominance in this country once it has taken over British Energy and built the four nuclear reactors it has planned, and that such dominance could be harmful? In these early days would it not make sense if the Minister and his friends approached the British arm of EDF suggesting that we took a serious minority equity interest in the company and had two experienced directors on the board? The Government are getting quite used to doing that at the moment. That would involve us; it would keep some British interest and a share of the profit, which will be big.

My Lords, I thought that that latter point might be coming. We have decided, should the sale go through and assuming that the competition authorities give it the green light, to take the government share in British Energy in cash. That will provide certainty of income and value for money, and will enable us to give that money to the fund for the decommissioning of the old nuclear stations.

I certainly take the point that it would be good to see other new providers of nuclear generation in this country. That is why agreement has been reached with EDF that it will sell land to other potential nuclear operators at some specific sites in certain circumstances. We certainly would wish to see other providers come in. This is a very great opportunity for this country to invest heavily in nuclear in the future.

My Lords, while we welcome EDF’s takeover of British Energy, does my noble friend agree that at the same time the French are making great use of the semi-completed internal market and that there is a moral obligation on the French Government to open up their domestic energy market to free competition—the competition that they are seeking to benefit from but in which they are not allowing anybody else to engage in France?

My Lords, we should be clear that we see EDF’s takeover as wholly positive as far as this country is concerned. However, my noble friend has certainly made some forceful points about the desirability of the liberalisation of the market within Europe as a whole.

My Lords, will the Government be able to re-export imported electricity from France? Yesterday I was with Ireland’s energy Minister, who made it absolutely clear that Ireland has no intention of going nuclear. It is my opinion that they will need to buy energy from us.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very, very interesting point. We see great potential in new nuclear. Although we must ensure that supply in this country is satisfied, we will look for other opportunities as well, not just for supply but also in what it means for jobs and the skills base in this country.

My Lords, given the Government’s interest as a shareholder and stakeholder in this takeover, what negotiations did they have with EDF to ensure that the impact on taxpayers of the legacy nuclear waste from current nuclear power stations is minimised? What assurances did they receive?

My Lords, the legacy from existing stations falls to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the Nuclear Liabilities Fund. The money which the Government raise from the sale of shares, assuming that that takes place, will be placed in the fund. Future decommissioning of new stations will be the responsibility of EDF and the other companies that come into the market and develop new nuclear stations.

My Lords, with EDF becoming the principal provider of nuclear energy in this country, can the Minister guarantee that there will be safeguards, and that nuclear waste will not come from France to be buried in this country?

If I may say so, my Lords, that is a completely separate issue. The point about the EDF takeover of British Energy is that it will enable the development of new nuclear in the United Kingdom. I do not think that any of the agreements being discussed involve the transfer of waste.

My Lords, like a number of other noble Lords, I expect, I find myself agreeing very strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said about the expansion of the nuclear industry in this country. I also agree very strongly indeed with what my noble friend Lord Tomlinson said about the lack of a two-way street. Do the Government have any intention of having a golden share in our nuclear industry in order to protect what will be a vital British national interest? Some of us feel a little uncomfortable about there not being equal access to markets in France.

No, my Lords, we do not think that a golden share is appropriate. We do think that we should continue to urge in Europe for liberalisation of the market and we do think that this proposed deal will bring many benefits to this country.