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Weightman Report

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2011

Statement

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the response that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change made in another place to the Urgent Question on Dr Weightman's report. The Statement is as follows.

“Earlier today I laid before the House the chief nuclear inspector's interim report on the events at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site in March. Dr Weightman's final report is due in September.

Safety is and will continue to be our number one priority, and I believe that it is vitally important that the regulators and industry continue to adhere to the principle of continuous improvement for all existing and future nuclear sites and facilities.

Dr Weightman has drawn a number of conclusions. He states that the direct causes of the nuclear accident—a magnitude 9 earthquake and associated 14-metre high tsunami—are far beyond the most extreme events the UK could expect to experience. In this respect he concludes that there is no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK.

Nevertheless, Dr Weightman notes severe events can occur from other causes and that learning from such events is fundamental to the robustness of our nuclear safety arrangements. I can therefore confirm that once further work on the recommendations is completed, any proposed improvements to safety arrangements will be considered and implemented in line with our normal nuclear safety regulatory approach.

The interim report also identifies various matters that should be reviewed to improve the safety of the UK nuclear industry. I consider it an absolute priority that the regulators, industry and government act responsibly to learn from the 26 recommendations in the report and to respond to them within one month of today's report.

My officials will review carefully the interim report but, from my discussions with Dr. Weightman, I see no reason why we should not proceed with our current policy—namely that nuclear can and should be part of the future energy mix in the future as it is today, providing that there is no public subsidy. The interim report does not identify any implications for the strategic siting assessment of new reactors, and I do not believe that the final report will either.

Subject to careful consideration of the detail of Dr Weightman's interim report, I intend to bring forward for ratification as soon as possible the energy national policy statements.

I strongly welcome Dr Weightman's interim report. I encourage the regulators to work closely with industry and other partners to take the recommendations forward, and I look forward to receiving the final report in the autumn”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I was disappointed to learn that, until an Urgent Question was granted in the other place today, the Government had intended to make this announcement in a Written Statement. Such an important issue should be debated, so I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement today.

I thank Dr Weightman for his work. He and his team have clearly worked extremely hard and we appreciate the way in which they have undertaken their task. Given the time available, they have produced an informative and detailed report. We accept that this is an interim report and that the full report will be available in September. However, he has clearly been able to examine the reasons for the catastrophe in Japan and the likelihood of any similar factors being present in the UK. Can the Minister tell us whether Dr Weightman and his team were able to visit the site in Japan—with the appropriate safety precautions, of course? If not, will they be able to do so before they finalise their report and bring it forward to us in September?

As the Minister will be aware, we support nuclear power as part of the mix of a low-carbon energy supply, which is why we are so concerned that all safety and security aspects should be effectively examined and dealt with appropriately. Public confidence in new and existing nuclear demands nothing less. So we welcome this report and look forward to the full report.

I have a few questions for the Minister. If he is unable to address any of them from the Dispatch Box today, I would be grateful if he would write to me with the answers, given the importance of the subject.

Will Dr Weightman consider in his full report any further developments in Fukushima since he completed this interim report? Given that it may be many years before the full extent of the catastrophe is known, can the Minister assure us that the UK nuclear inspectorate or other appropriate body will be fully engaged with the Japanese nuclear authorities to ensure that we are able to learn from the ongoing consequences of this incident? Can he also assure me that all potential risks, natural and otherwise, are being fully examined?

The report contains 26 recommendations. The noble Lord has assured your Lordships’ House that it is a priority to respond to the recommendations within a month—for which we are grateful—and that once further work on these recommendations is completed, any proposed improvements to safety regulations will be considered and implemented. I know that he will share my view that any actions required should be undertaken as a matter of urgency and not delayed because of any funding or costs issues. Can he assure me that the Government’s stated policy of no subsidy for nuclear will not at any stage delay or hamper necessary safety or security measures? Will he also agree to report back to your Lordships’ House on monitoring arrangements and the implementation of the recommendations?

In the Statement, the noble Lord said that the energy national policy statement is to be brought forward for ratification as soon as possible subject to consideration of this interim report. I am unclear on this. Would there be any merit in the Government waiting until the final report is available before bringing the national policy statement forward? The noble Lord emphasised the point made by Chris Huhne in the other place, that the national energy plan should proceed as part of the low-carbon energy mix. We welcome that, but we have the usual caveat—providing that there is no public subsidy. As the Minister will be aware, the highly regarded Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in the other place has reported that there is, in effect, a public subsidy for nuclear through long- term contracts and the carbon floor price. The committee has urged the Government to be upfront about the subsidies provided to nuclear. Is the noble Lord able to explain this contradiction to your Lordships’ House?

Finally, shortly after the explosion in Japan the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was far more pessimistic about the future of nuclear power than were his government colleagues. He insisted that no extra government money would be found for any additional costs. He also stated that energy firms struggle to raise investment from the private sector. He then added that, as Deputy Prime Minister through the coalition agreement, he had the right to veto the provision of any additional government funds. The Minister will understand the concerns about such doubt over the future of nuclear power at the heart of government. Does he consider that Nick Clegg’s comments have damaged, or could damage, investment—or did that intervention have no impact? Potential investors need commitment, stability and certainty. The noble Lord’s comments on this would be welcome.

This is a thorough and useful interim report which is an important part of the process of ensuring safety and stability in the nuclear industry for the public benefit. Our gratitude goes to Dr Weightman and his team.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has made some excellent points and I should like to tackle them head on, as I hope I always do. She made the valuable point about having a debate in this House. Between us, we have tried to get a debate in the House but sadly the order of business up to Recess prevents that, despite our efforts. We should have that debate in this House because, on all sides of the Chamber, we have incredible knowledge and expertise particularly in this nuclear field and, broadly speaking, a consensus of views which will allow us to make progress in the nuclear industry now that we have this excellent report that Dr Weightman has done with such efficiency and in so short a timeframe.

Quite naturally, he has not yet been close up to the site but will go next week. It shows the esteem in which he is held within the international community that the IAEA has itself chosen him to write the broad-scale report on Fukushima. We should congratulate him on that and have great pride that he has been chosen to do it. As I said clearly in our Statement, the report’s recommendations for future safety will be acted upon. We will ensure that they are acted upon speedily. The ONR—the regulatory authority is independent, unlike in many other countries—is led by Dr Weightman and will oversee that.

On the issue of the delay, there has been delay as a result of these tragic events. They were indeed tragic. There was delay and various members of the political community, including the Deputy Prime Minister, were quite right to put forward their views and concerns as a result of this terrible tragedy. However, we as a Government are committed to new nuclear. We are committed to no subsidy for it because we believe it is a mature industry with a great deal of expertise and there is the finance available to make it happen. We will be pressing as hard as we can to achieve this and make up for lost time. Dr Weightman’s report gives us the platform to progress and with the support of your Lordships I hope we can do it.

Moving briefly to the excellent point about the carbon floor price—of course it supports nuclear; of course it supports renewables; of course it supports a lot of the activities that we are carrying out to ensure that we have nuclear security and to achieve our stated goal of a low-carbon economy.

My Lords, perhaps I may say how much I endorse both Dr Weightman’s report and my noble friend’s statement on the safety grounds, which of course are of the first importance. Dr Weightman’s findings fully tally with the view I took almost 30 years ago when, as Secretary of State for Energy, I fired the starting pistol for Sizewell B. The problem with nuclear is not a matter of safety provided we have the very high safety standards we have always had in this country. After all, we were the first country to produce nuclear energy for the grid, in 1956. We have had no serious problems in this country and if we maintain these standards it is not a problem.

The problem is the economic one. My noble friend said no subsidy, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said, the carbon floor price is a subsidy. How about doing away with that and with all the greatly increased subsidies for renewables? If you want a non-carbon energy, nuclear energy is infinitely more competitive than wind and all the other renewables. How about taking advantage—in the rather fragile economic conditions in which this country finds itself—of the abundance of gas available for generating electricity far more cheaply and actually producing revenue for the Exchequer instead of having a hand in the Exchequer’s pocket?

We owe a great debt to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, as one of the founders of the nuclear industry in this country—

Obviously, my colleagues behind me feel I am saying the right things. Of course, safety was paramount when the noble Lord pressed the button for Sizewell B. It is worth just rehearsing some of the differences between what the noble Lord and subsequent Ministers did and the difference between ourselves and the Japanese incident. We have gas-cooled nuclear reactors not water-cooled ones. The future ones are pressurised water and as far as I understand it—noble Lords will know I am not many things and I am certainly not a scientist—that reduces the density. Our design predictions are based on what might happen, not what has happened. That is a fundamental difference.

We have not taken the issues that have happened in the past; we have taken the issues of what could happen and magnified them to modern standards. We also do not store as much fuel at the plant and we have an independent regulator which can determine whether nuclear power stations should be operating rather than there being government intervention. These are just some of the issues and I am very grateful for all the work the noble Lord did. He will forgive me if I do not, when we are debating a Weightman report on the back of a seriously tragic incident, get too distracted by the debate about renewables and gas at this point. However, as always, I will be delighted to have that debate on another occasion and I very much look forward to it.

My Lords, I have a little familiarity with the Fukushima event but I have not yet had the privilege of reading Dr Weightman’s report. However, it is worth making a few comments. First, I make no comment on the relationship between the operating company and the regulatory authority in Japan or indeed on the way in which the plant was operated. However, it is worth recognising that the Fukushima plant was actually designed 50 years ago and constructed around 40 years ago. Both of these dates are before the days of modern computers, which is an astonishing advantage that one has when one is designing a modern nuclear plant. Anyone looking at the issue carefully today, although with hindsight we have all sorts of bright ideas how things could have been better, is impressed at how well this ancient—almost fossil—nuclear plant came through an event that was far beyond the design specifications agreed at the time that it was built. It was built to withstand a tsunami of five metres high. In the event, it had to withstand something over 12 metres.

It is worth emphasising the extreme improbability of the event that faced Fukushima. The earthquakes of the magnitude that hit Fukushima occur something like once every 25 years somewhere along the 40,000 kilometres of the Pacific rim. But that was not the only remarkable event. The second event—or the second coincidence, if you like—was that it had to be approximately where it was, 200 kilometres off the coast. Had it been much closer to the plant, there would have been much less effect. There would have been much less water available to push in the tsunami. If it had been further out, the tsunami would have been much more widely dispersed. So effectively it required two rather exceptional events. I do not know that anyone has satisfactorily computed the probability or improbability of this sort of thing happening, but it is very, very small. I do not think that it really ought to influence our nuclear debate one way or another.

That said, when there is a nuclear accident, there are always lessons to be learnt, and I am sure we shall learn design ideas or get new ideas on the basis of what has happened.

As always, we have had an object lesson in nuclear science from someone who really understands it. I would just add that three people died as a result of this incident—part of the 25,000 rumoured to be in the tsunami. One died from exhaustion and one from actually going outside the bounds of where he was allowed to operate. So this has been an incredible result in the horrific accident that happened along that coastline. The most important point that the noble Lord is asking us to consider and understand is that we must not be complacent. We must take on board these things. We owe it to the nation as a whole and this Government are not going to be complacent. We are determined to learn the lessons and to act accordingly.

My Lords, I welcome both this report, which is wide-ranging and international in its scope, and the positive statement from the Minister about the future of UK nuclear power.

Nuclear safety is highly advanced in Japan, the United States and Europe, more so than in some other significant areas of technology. That point was made in the recent high-level United States Government report, by the dean of physics and engineering at Harvard, in a review of last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil platform incident—the report was actually a very interesting study of how nuclear safety is conducted around the world. For example, nuclear technologies analyse and measure tiny, fluctuating signals and how they are correlated. I have seen this as a mathematician. We are building on that.

The other issue is that the long-term policy for nuclear waste is not a safety issue but a political issue in the context of nuclear power. Therefore, the Government in making their future plans must also connect with their policy for first storing and then perhaps reprocessing wastes to reduce their radioactive life. This is perhaps an area in which the Government also need to address the question.

As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, pointed out, the other important issue is how nuclear power stations withstand external impacts. The Japanese incident showed that some aspects worked while others did not. One reason why they did not was because of the storage of wastes on site. That shows how safety is very much a matter of management as well as of technology—again, as the US report noted—in dealing with these major accidents. The question of interaction between different organisations is a critical part, which the report of Dr Weightman indeed mentions.

Will the Minister, in his commitment to develop UK technology and science in nuclear energy, which is part of the government programme, ensure that it is international and also that expertise is a strong element of management?

I remind noble Lords that it is very important to be brief in the questions that they put to the Minister on the Statement. Otherwise, other people will not be able to get in.

I, of course, do not like people asking questions, so I am happy for them to go on for a very long time.

However, I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I am grateful to him for setting out the platform as an experienced scientist in these matters. He raised one fundamental point, which is that we cannot consider just the new nuclear and the old nuclear reactors, but we also have to be vigilant about our decommissioning and reprocessing. As he well knows, I am committed to an investigation before a decision is made on a Mox plant and regenerating Sellafield as a centre of excellence. We are spending £2.5 billion, which in the current climate I managed to get out of the Treasury so that, within the lifetime of this Parliament, we can put our hazard decommissioning into as good an order as it will ever have been. I completely concur with that.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 1706, following an earthquake off the south coast of Ireland, a tsunami flooded the lower reaches of the Severn and the Somerset levels, which are adjacent to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station and, indeed, to the planned further nuclear stations on that site? Can the Minister assure us that, in spite of everything that has been said about nuclear safety in this country, we will not assume that such an event could not take place again, and that developments on that site will be secure from such accidents?

I am also aware that a few years later, in 1755, there was the horrendous Lisbon earthquake, which caused a tsunami 2 metres higher than the high tide. We are clearly aware of the implications for this area. The most encouraging thing about the ONR is that it plans on a 1 in 10,000 year event, which is probably just about enough to get me through my lifetime but, with the will of God, perhaps not enough for the right reverend Prelate—I know which direction I am going in, and I have an idea in which direction he is going. Obviously, we need to keep refreshing that and ensuring that safety and security of that nature is fundamental.

My Lords, I welcome very much the fact that this report has been produced so quickly on behalf of the Government, who have responded to it very well in demanding a response on the 26 recommendations. Perhaps I might concentrate on just one or two areas. Conclusion 11 states:

“With more information there is likely to be considerable scope for lessons to be learnt about human behaviour in severe accident conditions”.

Recommendation 4 states:

“Both the UK nuclear industry and ONR should consider ways of enhancing the drive to ensure more open, transparent and trusted communications”.

What concerns me most about this incident was the fact that the Tokyo Electric Power Company was not seen as being open and was not quick in responding, not only to the public but to its own Government, and that those communications and the threats that came from them were quite huge. That has done great harm, unfairly, to our own nuclear industry, which used to have a similar reputation of being closed and unwilling to share information. I hope that the Government will work with the industry in the UK to make sure that the new and increased openness, which we hope will remain, stays there. The public’s concern about the nuclear industry could be one of the greatest casualties.

The Minister also mentioned stress tests in the review and said that they would be carried out by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group and the European Commission. I suggest to him that together those might not be the most trusted of organisations, and perhaps we could do with some more independent scientific input into those tests. Perhaps he could reassure the House that the stress tests will be rather more comprehensive and trustworthy than those that looked at the European banking system.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who is a recent convert to nuclear, which is extremely encouraging. I applaud his support and am grateful for it.

Transparency must obviously be at the centre of what we do. The report has made a number of recommendations, of which, as he rightly says, transparency is one, and we will be adopting those recommendations. It is fundamental that the British public feel secure. That is why the report is so important. It has been a broad-scale report. That is why we got it out early, so that we could bring comfort to the British public, and transparency is at the heart of that.

I am convinced that the nuclear industry is committed to stress testing. It is part of the industry’s research and endeavour; indeed, it is almost a byword within the industry. As such, I feel confident that the industry will support us in this.

Has the Minister been given any briefing at this stage on the implications of what has happened in Japan for the British reprocessing industry?

The Weightman report does not go into great detail about reprocessing. As the noble Lord knows, that is my responsibility within the department. I am comfortable with the briefing that I have and the progress that we are making. I am grateful to him for raising the question; as he knows, I try to keep him informed as a man of Cumbria who has represented it well for many years. I am confident that there is a strong commitment to that industry in that part of the world.

My Lords, I join my noble friend in thanking Dr Weightman for what has been, in an astonishingly short time, a very detailed interim report. We look forward to his final report, which will go wider than the electricity-generating industry—that is what he is offering. As well as thanking him, though, I express my admiration for what the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, was able to do while he was in Tokyo. There is no doubt about it; he was extremely valuable in understanding what was going on in Japan and giving advice to the Japanese from his great experience, as well as keeping this country thoroughly informed about what was going on. It is right to mention that.

I have one question, which I hope that my noble friend will be able to answer. It is mentioned before conclusion 3 that the ONR is in an interim state at the moment, half way between its former nuclear installations inspectorate and the final solution where it will be, as it is said, a “standalone statutory corporation” outside the Health and Safety Executive. We have been waiting a long time for this to happen, and I know that Dr Weightman and his colleagues attach enormous importance to establishing and reinforcing their own independence from Government. When will we have the statutory instrument that will create that final stage?

I add my comments to those of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, about the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser. Sir John Beddington has been magnificent. This also gives me a final opportunity to thank Dr Weightman because between them the two have been efficient, sound and reliable in the way in which they have produced this excellent document.

The independent regulatory body, the ONR, was an idea conceived by the previous Government, on which I congratulate them. It went into abeyance as we went into the election period. When we got into power, one of the first things we did was to put the ONR into operation so that it is now an agency that operates unilaterally. By the end of this year, or certainly by the beginning of next year, we hope to have put that on to the statute book to give it total independence, which will be ratified around 2013. As we get closer to the date, I will be happy to give that information to the noble Lord, who I know follows this matter closely.

In the light of the interim Weightman report, can the Minister give the Government’s latest assessment of both the timing and the severity of the so-called energy gap?

There is no energy gap at the moment. If there is an energy gap we will look at it and try to deal with it accordingly. Our current plans are on target to deliver a continuous energy supply. It would be wrong of us to be complacent about it. One of the benefits of the recession—if there is such a thing as a benefit of a recession—is that there has been less energy demand and therefore less requirement for a supply of energy. The time until a potential gap has lengthened. However, it is clearly the Government’s responsibility to make sure at all times that there is no gap.