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Energy: Nuclear Safety

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 11 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will lay the proposed Legislative Reform Order to change the status of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

My Lords, the Government attach great importance to the ongoing robust, effective and efficient regulation of the nuclear energy sector in the UK and expect to make a full announcement on the future of nuclear regulation very shortly.

I thank my noble friend. He may find himself slightly surprised to be answering questions about nuclear safety, but is he aware that this legislative reform order is essential now if the inspectorate is to meet all the challenges with which it is faced? Is he also aware that this has been going on for months and months and that the order has the full support of the whole industry, the unions and the inspectorate? Forgive my impatience, but how much longer are we going to have to wait?

My Lords, as I said, we are hopeful of making a full announcement in the very near future. The two options under consideration for reform of nuclear regulation are, first, for a discrete agency within the Health and Safety Executive, which could be achieved rather rapidly without legislation, or, secondly, for a stand-alone statutory corporation, which could be delivered on a slower timescale either through the drawing up of a legislative reform order or through primary legislation. Both legislative routes offer potential advantages and disadvantages. As I said, I hope to be in a position to announce our decision very shortly.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the independence and expertise of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate—I declare a long-ago interest as a former planner there—will be maintained under any new arrangements, since this is surely what has kept our nuclear industry safe over the years since that inspectorate joined the Health and Safety Executive?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. Yes, it is absolutely at the centre of any decision going forward that we keep an effective safety regime—a regime that has indeed been congratulated on being a world leader. We would absolutely aim to keep that objective front and centre.

My Lords, given the vital importance of this order to the nuclear programme and therefore to the future of environment policy—and, indeed, of energy security—should not effective control over and responsibility for such matters, given the delay that there has already been, be transferred or, in effect, ceded to the Department of Energy and Climate Change?

I thank my noble friend for that question. The inspectorate is kept separate for very good reasons, which are connected to my last answer. If you have one department whose job is to put nuclear resources on the ground, so to speak, it is important that another, independent department is ultimately responsible for making sure that that is done in the safest possible way. That is the rather peculiar reason for my standing here discussing nuclear energy, as my role in this House is to look after nuclear safety in this country.

My Lords, the county of Somerset is experiencing a considerable reduction in employment at present, but with the proposed nuclear power station being currently planned on site, does the Minister agree that it is imperative for the future of the labour force in Somerset and for encouraging people to find work that these regulations are very quickly and immediately put into practice?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend prelate for that question. What is absolutely imperative is that we get rid of any uncertainty that there may be in the nuclear industry, so that it can go forward at speed to produce the facilities that we need in order to cover the energy position in this country which, as your Lordships know, is pretty tight as we look at the decade ahead.

My Lords, will the Minister’s plan ensure that it will be easier for retired inspectors to return? I know that some of them are younger than me and I am sure that that is part of the plan. Will he also ensure that these arrangements will ensure that what was called the National Radiological Protection Board, which was a world-famous organisation for ensuring safety around our nuclear power stations, will have its important status restored? The board became part of the Health Protection Agency, which is now being changed, so it is very important that this aspect is also maintained.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. The important thing that we need is to have a body that is regarded as totally independent by the industry and that the industry can interact with it. Clearly, if the body is independent in that way, it will make its own decisions on who to recruit, whether they are retired, from abroad or from wherever. What is needed is an efficient capability.

My Lords, a consequential benefit of the proposed change of status of the NII would be that it would be outside the Treasury pay remit, which obviously could potentially help with the recruitment of specialists and progress on the generic design assessment. Will the Minister update us on issues around recruitment for the NII and whether that is still a problem?

My Lords, the nuclear inspectorate has been able successfully to fill some of the gaps that it has had in the past couple of years, so it is now much more strongly staffed. That is not a problem. The issue, looking forward, is whether it will be in a position to recruit people of the calibre that it needs. Whatever form it goes forward in, whether as a discrete agency or as a statutory body, it is essential that the inspectorate is able to make the appropriate recruitment.

My Lords, I ask the Government, through the Minister, to reassure us that they realise the urgency of the situation. There is a limited capacity for making nuclear plants and the suppliers of nuclear plants already have their order books filled. China is currently building four or five new plants. We must get on with this, as it is extremely urgent. We must take safety into account, but please reassure us that the Government realise the urgency of the matter.

My Lords, we realise the urgency. That is why we are going to produce a full statement on the issue very shortly.