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Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in view of the recently announced closure of the MOX reprocessing plant at Sellafield, what plans they have for securing investment and new jobs in the local area.

Sellafield is recognised as the most important nuclear site in the UK, employing over 10,000 people. That priority has seen record levels of investment from the latest government spending round, which will lead to the acceleration of decommissioning work at the site. The closure of the MOX plant is of course regrettable, but Sellafield Ltd is actively working with the 600 people who will lose their jobs at this time, and everyone in the area is doing their very best to see that these people find jobs very quickly.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer and it is welcome that new jobs are being sought. However, my Question leads to the longer-term future for the site. Sellafield is a unique site in the UK and I believe that it could become the home of world-leading research into the use of next-generation nuclear reactors. Such reactors, as well as being more efficient in their fuel use, generating no long-lasting waste, can be designed to burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium held at the Sellafield site. In light of this, is there more that the Government can do to support R&D into new nuclear designs that will help to ensure that we develop the safest and most efficient new reactors?

First, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and her new interest in nuclear, and I hope that she will feed in her views to the Government and allow us to help her where we can. I hope that she will share her vision of the new approach, which I think she was hoping would be based on thorium. On her Question, if we can turn a liability into an asset, this Government will explore every possibility. The Government consulted earlier this year on their preferred policy option for dealing with the plutonium stockpile, and will confirm their position later this year.

My Lords, does the Minister not regard it as a crying shame that this country, which after all pretty well started the invention of nuclear power for peaceful uses, is now annually investing less than £25 million a year in research into nuclear fission, which is way behind all our major competitors? That makes us the poorhouse for developing further in the way that my noble friend has just mentioned.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is right that we have not been investing as we should. We have been in government for only a year and we are trying our best to get ahead as fast as we can. I know that he is doing wonderful work with Imperial College, and it is to people like him that we look to show us the way ahead.

Following on from the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, rather than jumping the gun like Usain Bolt, may I ask my noble friend whether there are residual liabilities under the processing contracts at the MOX plant at Sellafield in relation to cleaning up the plant? If so, who is going to bear them?

There are residual liabilities, and we will have to work out exactly what we are going to do. Can we turn the existing plutonium stocks from the MOX plants from a liability into an asset? That is an area that we must look at and see what we can do. The Government consulted earlier this year on their preferred policy option for dealing with all those stockpiles and will confirm their position later this year. I thank my noble friend for his question.

My Lords, in dealing with the future of nuclear sights, will the Government draw the public’s attention to the fact that most fears about radiation are enormously exaggerated?

Does the Minister agree that there would be great benefit to the area and the UK if the existing plutonium stock stored at Sellafield could be converted into an asset? With the right kind of advanced reactor, the plutonium could be completely consumed while making new fuel from thorium, which could be used in increasing carbon-free electrical generation capacity, generating 20 per cent more than the UK is currently using. Could the Minister confirm that this would be of huge benefit to jobs in Cumbria?

It would be of huge benefit to everyone if we can get this off the ground, absolutely. I really am very grateful, as is my noble friend Lord Marland, for the noble Lord’s personal interest in this subject. I understand that he is going to Sellafield soon and we would very much like to hear his views on his return.

Will the noble Baroness and the Government do all that they can to encourage the creation of new jobs in these areas, as my noble friend has suggested in her Question? Will she also confirm that the number of apprentices already at Sellafield is the way forward in creating those new jobs and building a future for that area?

I agree with the noble Baroness, particularly about apprenticeships, which I know are very close to her heart. UK Trade and Investment is looking at this area and seeing what it can do to help, the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership is working extremely well, the docks at Warrington have been opened for the new containers, and a lot of apprenticeships are, I understand, being sought in that area. So yes, I do agree with her.