Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I start by thanking the members of the Science and Technology Committee, including the co-optees for this report, for their excellent contributions. I also thank our specialist adviser, Professor Robin Grimes of Imperial College, for his wise expert advice. I also thank the Minister for the Government’s response to our report, to which I will refer shortly.
This report of the Science and Technology Select Committee is about the credibility of the Government’s plans for nuclear power in the future. Nuclear energy currently supplies about 16%—12 gigawatts—of the UK’s electricity, which is down from 25% 15 years ago. Nine of the current fleet of 10 nuclear power stations are due to close down in the next 13 years, by 2025. The Government have announced that they will build a new fleet of nuclear power stations to replace those that are going out of commission. The new fleet is to be built by the nuclear industry, and the aim is to build up to 16 gigawatts of power by 2025. These new power stations will have a lifespan of 60 years. We are talking about energy generation during the bulk of the remainder of this century.
Looking further ahead, to 2050 and beyond, it is expected that nuclear power will provide a larger share of our electricity than at present. Various scenarios produced by the Government and by advisers suggest that between 15% and 49% of our electricity will come from nuclear power, but it is likely to be well above the minimum of these scenarios. Why is that? The Government’s policy on energy supply has to meet four objectives. The first is security of supply; the second is affordability; the third is to meet our legally binding greenhouse gas targets; and the last, but not the least, is safety.
On the third of these, the Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s statutory independent advisory committee—I declare an interest as a member of it—has suggested that, in order to meet our greenhouse gas targets, by 2030 the electricity supply will have to be largely decarbonised. This is likely to be achieved through a portfolio that could include 40% nuclear, 40% renewables and 20% fossil fuels, mostly with carbon capture and storage. In this mix, nuclear energy is a proven, low-cost, low-carbon option. In short, if we are to keep the lights on with a lower carbon footprint, and if we are to be able to pay to keep them on, we are likely to depend to a substantial degree on nuclear power.
This is the starting point for our report, which is not about the arguments for and against nuclear power. We take it as given that nuclear energy will be part of the future mix, and we asked whether the Government have a credible plan to deliver this. Our inquiry concluded that the Government do not have a credible plan. This was the view of all the expert witnesses, including those from the UK and overseas, and including the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the chief scientific adviser in the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
We asked whether the UK will, in the decades ahead, have a sufficient supply of expertise, as well as the research and development capabilities, to support an expansion of nuclear energy. We concluded that, although the UK still has strengths in the nuclear field, they are largely the result of past investment. Many of the leading experts will retire in the next decade and, because of a lack of investment and vision by the Government, there is inadequate succession planning. Without a new generation of experts and a new focus on research and development, the UK will not be able to act as an intelligent customer for new power stations, as an effective regulator or as a contributor to the development of new nuclear technologies by UK industry. These functions are all necessary, even if the Government were to adopt what might be called an “Argos catalogue” approach of buying nuclear power plants from overseas companies.
Remarkably, in our inquiry, the Government did not even recognise the problem that they face. They presented an extraordinarily complacent view about the future. To quote one senior official in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Government’s strategy is to “keep a watching brief”. I can only speculate that the DECC official, when referring to a “watching brief”, was thinking of Euro 2012, Wimbledon and the Olympics. I doubt that the next generation of young scientists and engineers will be attracted by the vision of a “watching brief”.
Nor will UK industry be able to capitalise on the estimated £1.7 trillion global market for nuclear technologies in the years ahead. I will give some figures about our investment in R and D. Since the 1980s, the nuclear R and D workforce in this country has declined from about 8,000 to under 2,000, counting both public and private sectors. From the figures we had available, up to 2009, our investment in nuclear R and D was lower than countries such as Australia, which has no nuclear energy programme, half that of the Netherlands and Norway, and one-100th of that of France. We spend a smaller percentage of our energy research budget on nuclear energy than any of the 17 countries for which we had comparative data. Our international partners view our lack of investment with disbelief.
The UK also does not make the best use of facilities it has. At the National Nuclear Laboratory, to which we paid a visit to see this with our own eyes, there are state-of-the-art facilities for handling hot radioactive material that have never been commissioned. They could be an attractive facility for international collaborators, but we are simply not using them.
It appeared to us as though the Government were setting out on a journey to a nuclear energy future without a map of how to get there, without a driver and without anyone to repair the car if it breaks down on the way. What needs to happen? Our report made 14 recommendations. I do not propose to go through all 14, and I am sure that other noble Lords will refer to various aspects of our report. A central recommendation is that the Government need a nuclear energy strategy and, to underpin this, a research and development road map as well as a body to make sure that the road map is developed and implemented. That body, which we called the nuclear R and D board, should, we argued, have a powerful independent chairman and include experts from all key stakeholder groups. We argued that it should develop the vision and drive that is currently lacking, and it should hold the Government to account. In implementing this, there is no time to waste. If the Government continue to “keep a watching brief”, there may be no lights by which to watch the brief.
What have the Government said in their response? I will first give the good news. The report seems to have acted as a wake-up call. The Minister of State for Universities and Science said that nuclear issues are:
“High on our agenda… after a challenging report from the Science and Technology Committee”.
Furthermore, the Government have accepted the majority of our 14 recommendations in full or in principle. No doubt other noble Lords will pick up on other recommendations. We very much welcome this positive response. Crucially, the Government will publish a long-term strategy for nuclear energy, including an industrial vision statement explaining how the research base can support the global economic opportunities in nuclear technology. This strategy is due out in the summer. Judging by our weather, the summer has been postponed this year; I hope that that does not mean that the strategy will also be postponed.
The Government have also established a nuclear R and D advisory board, chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, whose job is to co-ordinate effort and to create the R and D road map to underpin the nuclear strategy. This road map is due to be published at the end of the year, and I hope that it will have real teeth. It should set out clearly how the Government intend to make appropriate investment in nuclear R and D, how this investment can be harnessed to support product development by UK industry and how the training of the next generation of scientists and engineers will be achieved.
The government response leaves many questions unresolved, and I hope that the Minister will use the opportunity provided by this debate to update us on progress and thereby shine light, perhaps even light generated by nuclear power, on some of these unresolved issues.
I have four questions for the Minister. First, will the R and D advisory board continue, as we recommend, with not only an advisory but an executive role in the future and who will chair it? Will it be established as a non-departmental public body as we recommended? Secondly, will the Government reinstate the UK’s membership of the so-called Generation IV International Forum, the body that will shape the next generation of nuclear power stations, or are we to remain in the stands as observers? Thirdly, have the Government decided that they will now commission the currently unused state-of-the-art hot facilities at the National Nuclear Laboratory? Fourthly, do the Government plan to implement our recommendation for the re-establishment of the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee to provide independent advice and challenge for the Office for Nuclear Regulation and challenges to it? This country rightly has an outstanding international reputation for nuclear safety, evidenced by the fact that our chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, was chosen by the international community to report on the Fukushima incident in 2011. It is crucial for our nuclear future that this outstanding reputation is maintained.
I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s answers to these and other questions. I commend this report to the House. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has given a splendid introduction to this debate. I might add that he was an excellent chairman of the committee and mention one particular contribution. One weekend he took home what many of us regarded as not a very good summary of our report and came back with an electrifying one. That substantially laid the foundations for the report’s success and its result.
Given the response from the Government, which I shall refer to in a moment, I do not hesitate to say that this has been a very influential report, perhaps more so than some other science and technology reports of recent years. I hope that I am not breaching a confidence when I say that the Minister of Energy asked the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and me, two co-opted members of the committee, to go and see him. He wanted to discuss one or two impacts of the report. The right honourable gentleman confessed to us that the report had drawn attention to some significant gaps in the Government’s policies for nuclear energy and, in particular, to the need for more research and development. Certainly, the contrast between what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, rightly called the complacent evidence given to our inquiry by the Government and the far more positive, constructive tone of their response is truly remarkable and very welcome.
This debate is the occasion for looking forward to what is to come and, like the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, I will have some questions for the Minister. It is still clear that there are challenges. Last Thursday I was privileged to host a reception in the Palace at which the University of Manchester and the Dalton Nuclear Institute celebrated their recent award. I might add that Manchester had the foresight to embark on a new nuclear research and training programme well in advance of the previous Government’s change of heart, with the notable speech by the Prime Minister at the Royal Society. Manchester started in 2005, when some of us felt that we were batting away in the dark, banging for a new nuclear programme and not being listened to. The result of the university’s far-sighted decision was the establishment of the Dalton Nuclear Institute. Earlier this year, the institute and the university were awarded the Diamond Jubilee Queen’s anniversary prize in recognition of their,
“internationally renowned research and skills training for the nuclear industry”.
They have every entitlement to be extremely proud of that.
At the reception last week, the director of the institute, Professor Andrew Sherry, who gave some very compelling evidence to our Select Committee, listed what he saw as seven grand challenges over the next decades. I will draw attention to some of these and ask the Government where we are getting to on them. Andrew Sherry’s seven grand challenges are: decommissioning and clean-up; geological disposal; current and new-build reactor systems; spent fuel management; plutonium management; safeguards and security; and future nuclear energy systems, especially the generation 4 system, to which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred. That is a formidable agenda by any standards. However, the Government’s response to our report, and the accounts that I have heard of the work of the R and D advisory board, are encouraging as far as they go. Of course, we await the strategy paper and the promised road map, both of which are strongly recommended by the Select Committee and accepted by the Government. Many of our own more detailed recommendations have to await those documents, although the signs that they will be favourable are good. However, I am very glad that when he gave his response to the committee’s report, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, indicated that we may well want to return to the issues in the future if we are not satisfied with what we see. This is a hugely important area of government policy and this Select Committee is probably as well qualified as any to press the Government to get on with it.
I would like to ask the Minister about two of the seven challenges. One concerns plutonium management and the other future nuclear energy systems—the fifth and seventh items on the professor’s list. As everybody well knows, plutonium stocks are the long-term legacy left behind after decades of uranium-based nuclear generation. They must be dealt with. They can no longer simply be bequeathed to future generations. We have to find a solution. The Government are consulting on this but they have made it clear that their preferred solution is to build a new Mox plant—a mixed oxide plant—because the one at Sellafield has never worked properly, even though the French have had a very successful Mox plant in France. However, it is already clear that while this would progressively consume the plutonium stocks, it would be unlikely ever to pay for itself by the sales of Mox fuel.
There is an alternative solution, which I have discussed with the Minister and officials in his department—the so-called PRISM process being put forward by GE Hitachi. It would burn the plutonium as a fuel and at the same time generate electricity, so it should pay for itself. It is in fact a new generation nuclear reactor. I understand that GE Hitachi has offered guarantees, and it tells me that it is in detailed discussions with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I was reassured a few months ago by officials at DECC that they are treating it very seriously. Can my noble friend tell us anything more about that and about when we might have a decision? I recognise that the Government’s preferred decisions is the Mox plant, but there seems to be what might be a more valuable way forward through the GE Hitachi PRISM.
In this context, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, to her position on the Front Bench. I think I am right in saying that this is her first time in Grand Committee. We look forward to hearing her speech. I have had a number of exchanges with the noble Baroness since she joined the House, and she has sought to persuade me that the future for the nuclear industry should be based not on uranium but on thorium. It is a perfectly respectable argument in the right places. It has greater resistance to proliferation and other advantages, but I have also discussed this with experts at the National Nuclear Laboratory, and I am persuaded by the force of their arguments. This country has decades of practical experience with uranium. We have developed our widely recognised expertise in the uranium fuel cycle, and there are likely to be ready supplies of uranium all over the world, as far as can reasonably be seen. Thorium may be a proper process for a country that is starting up and has no history equivalent to ours, but I have to point out respectfully to the noble Baroness that I do not think it could possibly be appropriate in this country.
The second thing I shall talk about is future nuclear energy systems. Our evidence convinced me and, I think, most members that UK participation in international programmes—the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already mentioned the Gen 4 proposals—is essential if we are to present ourselves as having a long-term nuclear future and the credibility, to which the noble Lord referred, that will be needed if we are to work with other countries. For this, we must restore our reputation as world-class experts with a coherent and cohesive R and D programme. We took a lot of evidence about this. We still have great strength in certain fields, notably the fuel cycle field, but without such a programme, the rest will just dissipate and disappear.
How can this be done? One of our proposals was that, quite apart from the overseeing board, to which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred, we need a top, high-level hub around which other research facilities in the country can act as spokes. I have discussed this at some length with the National Nuclear Laboratory and, of course, with the Dalton Nuclear Institute, but there are other institutions. There are ISIS, Diamond Light Source, the universities and so on. We need this hub. In my view, a combination of the National Nuclear Laboratory and, as a university participant, the Dalton Nuclear Institute would provide very welcome technical leadership. As has been said, we have world-class resources. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already referred to the commissioning of the remaining phases of the nuclear laboratory at Sellafield. I, too, went to see them. My noble friend Lord Wade and I went, and they are hugely impressive, but empty. It is an enormous waste to leave them unused and unoccupied when they could help to establish our credibility as having a long-term future.
I ask the Minister what is happening there. Can he give us some understanding that these facilities will be commissioned and perhaps some idea as to how they might be paid for? We had useful evidence that they are very attractive to foreign companies and Governments that would want to do research on highly active materials. They have all the equipment and facilities to do that. However, we need to have this properly organised with an integrated and accessible hub—what the National Nuclear Laboratory described as,
“a focal point and lead organisation to coordinate work on behalf of the Government including international collaboration”.
There is much else in the report that we could refer to, but these are two very important issues in a very important report, and I hope the Minister will be able to offer us some way forward. As I said earlier, my impression is that the advisory board is doing well as far as it goes. However, the Government will need to press this forward vigorously and make sure that the hopes that have been aroused by their response to the report will indeed be realised.
My Lords, I welcome this report, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has said, is extremely well written and constructed and should lead to new long-term policies. I also welcome the unusually constructive government response, by which I refer to the generic feature of government responses, which do not always welcome all sorts of recommendations. This is a good step forward. The report is, of course, mainly concerned with nuclear fission power and the UK context, although it does note the evidence of the director of the UK fusion programme and there is also evidence in it from the director of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. I will come back to these questions but will just declare my own interest. In my own meandering career, I have worked on various nuclear issues such as the fast breeder reactor, fission-related problems and fusion technology. I am now a consultant and adviser to Tokamak Solutions, a project with government and private funding that is looking at possibly linking fusion and fission.
As the report says, the UK has very considerable capabilities in the basic sciences and technologies needed for the nuclear industry. In many areas, the UK was a leader and has a great tradition of collaboration between universities and government or industrial laboratories, which I have participated in. One of the features of having this dual approach to development and research, which is, of course, common to all other countries but which has seen a huge decline in the UK, is that it enables projects to start in the applied area. They then go into the universities, which advise them, and they then turn into research projects, funded by research councils, to establish the basic principles and publish the results in the scientific literature.
Some of the areas where the UK did particularly important work was mathematics, such as that relating to the optimisation of nuclear reactors that began in Harwell. The work there has established the basic methods around the world in many areas of technology including fluid flow, structures in nuclear engineering, electrodynamics and safety. Not everyone knows that Dalton was a meteorologist before he became a chemist. Dalton’s meteorology, as well as his chemistry, was important for safety.
The other important point I want to emphasise is that the model proposed in this report is essentially one of a board, with one or two centres, and university departments. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has, quite rightly, picked up what I also want to emphasise, which is that having a very significant hub makes a huge difference. There was an educational rumpus in the British system around 1990, when Mrs Thatcher—the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—was still Prime Minister, over whether climate change research would have one major centre, collaborating with universities, or all the funds would be distributed among existing laboratories. The controversial decision was taken to have the Hadley Centre, which turned into a world-leading institution. In the past, we have had world-leading centres that have been major hubs. The recommendation is not as strong as it might be in this report. Indeed, this has been the basis of leadership in the United States, France, Germany—until it withdrew—and Japan. We should remember the lessons of those countries.
In respect of that point, I worked in the Central Electricity Generating Board laboratory, which is now a housing estate, like many of our former laboratories. The privatisation programme in Britain led to a lot of housing estates taking over laboratories but none of the money from those estates ended up in science. It ended up in various places, which we shall talk about.
On the UK activities of this hub programme, it is essential that it does not just advise the Government. On this, I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. It must be seen to be a realistic organisation that works with industry. It must have contracts with industry—that is important—or it will not have credibility.
I see. The hub must be very practical and involved in engineering. I am sorry to sound like a broken record but we used to do that in the old CEGB. We were dealing with problems in power stations and designing new power stations, as well as carrying out research. That led to world-class respect.
The other important point is that there is the possibility of our hub or network using the extraordinarily advanced international computational facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment and, as I learnt yesterday from the Financial Times, the new engineering facilities being built at Rolls-Royce for the Trident programme. These will have extraordinary abilities, which we should involve in our programme.
I have a little anecdote on this. When I was a trainee, I was clambering around on a new railway engine that was being built in Vickers. All our equipment there was stamped, “Nuclear facilities: not to be used for any other purpose”. That is the kind of collaboration from which we rather want to move away. The United States has the major nuclear laboratories. It has always combined R and D work on the civil and defence aspects of nuclear energy. I do not see why we should move more in that direction in the UK.
Finally, responsibility for forward strategic planning, which needs to be explicit in the terms of reference of the board and maybe this hub, should include R and D programmes concerned with nuclear waste. This should involve not only geological repositories but new technologies. My noble friend Lady Worthington will doubtless touch on this. It is clear from Russia, China and Korea that it is important to use materials other than uranium, and that, even with uranium, we must find technologies that will use our existing waste as well as new waste. Can we really accept that the UK’s nuclear waste will be stored for ever, until the next ice age, about which the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, will perhaps tell us? Surely this is the moment when we should have new institutions with very long-range objectives—at least as long-range as those of other countries, which are certainly working on that timescale.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. The committee’s chairman has given us an excellent introduction. I, too, commend his chairmanship of the committee and his presentation of our findings today.
The report is primarily about keeping open this country’s options for nuclear energy, which depends on having the technical competence to understand, procure, run and regulate future generations of nuclear reactors. This calls for a wide range of scientific and technological expertise and a steady inflow of capable young people into nuclear science and engineering. The rationale for the inquiry was concern that we might be losing that competence. In spite of a worrying degree of complacency displayed by some government officials, our concerns were echoed by industry and other experts.
Our review of nuclear engineering and science in the UK showed that a substantial amount of R and D work was being carried out. However, there were two problems. The work was being carried out by more than a dozen different organisations, each with its own remit, priorities and agenda. Furthermore, there were no formal means by which these bodies could tailor their programmes to complement each other or to form a coherent national civil nuclear programme. These organisations are listed in the report, and I will mention only two. Our National Nuclear Laboratory, to which the Government assign lofty aims and responsibilities, is run at arm’s length by DECC, receives virtually no direct government funding and its main programme comprises such short-term, applied projects as it can fund through external commercial contracts. Some of its important and strategic facilities remain unused because no customer needs to use them and universities cannot afford them. It is as if the Government do not mind very much what the NNL does, provided that there is no charge to public funds. This situation is viewed with astonishment by colleagues in other countries, as is the minimal level of public funding for nuclear research over the last 20 years. The striking details are displayed in our report.
The second example is our research councils, which decide what science to support on the basis of competitive bids from universities. If the quality of science proposed in a nuclear bid, although high, is judged to be less good than that in another competitive bid, the work is not funded, regardless of any national importance that it may have. Again, this is not a criticism of research councils, which have to operate this way, but it does mean that special arrangements would have to be made for them to fit into any kind of national programme.
Each of the other UK bodies in nuclear R and D has similarly diverse aims and approaches. Unco-ordinated as they are they are, this eclectic mix of activities does have one characteristic in common: nearly all the money comes directly or indirectly from the Government. It would make sense therefore for the Government to exercise some coherent degree of oversight. But who is to do it? The problem is not eased by what appeared to us to be an unsatisfactory interface between the two departments primarily concerned, BIS and DECC. There is no person or body within government that has either the competence or responsibility to take an overall view of our civil nuclear capabilities. It is hardly surprising that we are not viewed internationally as a serious player, an impression that is reinforced when the Government decides on cost grounds that we should not participate in important, collaborative programmes international programmes that other countries see as a means of reducing costs.
It is for that reason that our report urges the Government to both develop a nuclear R and D strategy and establish an independent nuclear R and D board to ensure that the strategy is implemented. These two elements of our report are closely linked and depend on each other. The board should have members drawn from industry, from research laboratories and, indeed, from academia.
The Government’s reply to our report, as our chairman has said, is encouraging. The reply accepts the idea of a national strategy and a road map, and that is welcome. It has also established a nuclear R and D board, chaired by the government Chief Scientific Adviser to advise on next steps. This is fine as far as it goes. Whereas an advisory body chaired by the government Chief Scientific Adviser may be an appropriate interim step, it would be a serious error to regard it as a long-term solution. The government Chief Scientific Adviser has many responsibilities, and whereas his weight would be useful in dealing with the various independent and disparate bodies I have described, it would be unrealistic to expect of him the ongoing commitment of time and effort that will be needed.
Precisely how our nuclear R and D board is implemented or named does not matter. What we need is a high-level expert and influential body with a chairman who can commit several days a month to the job, supported by a small staff and a modest budget. The board must be able to co-ordinate, promote collaboration and commission work in areas where it recognises strategic gaps, whether in research, development or training. Our inquiry did not anticipate that the cost of funding such work would be high, and one witness suggested that an expenditure of around £20 million a year would be sufficient. This funding would enable the board to complement the work of the research councils, the technology strategy board and others, most likely with contracts placed with the National Nuclear Laboratory or perhaps with universities.
Such a commitment to R and D, along with a coherent road map, would also send a very clear, positive message to the nuclear industry. Much of that industry is international and can choose the most attractive location for its manufacturing facilities. This would be seen as a clear invitation to invest here. The recently announced intention to support the Rolls-Royce naval nuclear propulsion facility is to be welcomed and will certainly attract international interest. It would be strongly reinforced by a clear civil nuclear road map and a credible means of implementing it. The key point is that there must be a clearly identified focus of responsibility for ensuring the health and effectiveness of an agreed civil nuclear R and D programme: the road map. The additional cost would be very small. The job is primarily one of co-ordination and ensuring that the country gets value for the money that it is already spending. The opportunity is not only to secure an essential leg of government energy policy but to open up opportunities for industry at home and abroad.
My Lords, during the debate on the gracious Speech, I spoke about this report and described the extraordinary discrepancy between the view, on the one hand, of government officials in DECC and the previous Secretary of State and, on the other, those of almost everyone else, including the Government’s own scientific advisers. I quoted our conclusion:
“A fundamental change in the Government’s approach to nuclear R and D is needed now to address the complacency which permeates their vision of how the UK’s energy needs will be met in the future”.
I went on:
“Those were strong words and they seem to have detonated like a nuclear explosion within DECC. The Government’s response, accepting almost all our recommendations, appears to represent the fundamental change in approach to R and D that we demanded. It also acknowledges, ‘that nuclear power stations have a vital part in our energy strategy’”.—[Official Report, 16/5/12; col. 464.]
I welcomed the change, but said that I remained acutely concerned about the Government’s wider approach and about what I fear is still a possibility, an acute energy security crisis.
Many of my concerns remain. I believe that every member of the committee was deeply disturbed, indeed shocked, by the flaws in the approach of the department over this important area of its responsibilities that were exposed during our evidence sessions. Comforting although it is to have our criticisms and recommendations so comprehensively accepted, confidence was shaken and it will take a good deal of effort for it to be fully restored. What is important now is to see the commitments made in the Government’s response turned into reality.
The publication of the long-term strategy document in the summer, the creation of an advisory board led by the Government’s chief scientist and the development of the promised road map will all be significant steps, but a number of our recommendations are taken no further than the promise that they will be considered by the advisory board and as part of discussions on the road map. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already observed, many questions are unresolved. The Select Committee will need to keep a close eye on events as they unfold.
This is not the moment to range widely over energy policy and the problem issues I referred to in the debate on the gracious Speech. The coming debates on the energy Bill and the proposed hugely complex system of contracts for difference will provide plenty of opportunities for that. I believe that the nation’s energy security depends on a substantial nuclear component and will listen closely to the debate about whether that will require up-front price subsidies of the initial high capital costs of nuclear to produce competitive low-cost energy over a 60-year life cycle and whether the Government’s complex scheme will provide the certainty and confidence that France’s EDF and probably others will demand if they are to go ahead with the planned nuclear programme.
I leave those vital questions for now. I want to take up two points that arise directly from our report. The first is covered by paragraphs 84 to 86 and the former Secretary of State’s comments about oil and gas scenarios. Those responsible for energy policy have now to face the reality that gas prices are most unlikely to be at the top end of Mr Huhne’s alternative scenarios but are likely to be at the bottom. I shall, I hope, explain as I go on why this is a completely relevant topic to consider in the context of a report on nuclear R and D.
North American gas prices have tumbled due to the successful exploitation of US shale gas reserves. There are vast shale gas reserves around the world, including in Europe and under European waters. They are so vast in China, Mexico and South America that the energy resource geography of the world is likely to be completely transformed. That was the view of Professor Mike Stephenson of the British Geological Survey, who is also the director of the Nottingham Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage, who was speaking at an important seminar I attended yesterday at the Geological Society in Burlington House.
The Government appear to have been playing down the potential for UK shale oil, but the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has concluded that a moratorium on extraction in the UK is not justified and the way has been cleared for further exploratory work. That is important because at present we simply do not know how much we have. The BGS’s early estimate for the area being looked at in the north-east is likely to be revised up later this year, and estimates for the rest of the UK onshore will follow. Melvyn Giles, global head of unconventional gas and light oil at Shell, has recently reported that the UK’s offshore reserves are “mind-blowingly big”. At the moment, extraction costs make offshore reserves completely uncompetitive, but developing extraction technology may well change that. Onshore, it seems highly probable that the rest of the world will over the next few years follow the American lead.
The Select Committee’s report was about nuclear R and D; but R and D of one potential energy source cannot, or should not, be carried out in isolation. The reality is that UK shale gas exploration is in its infancy. We do not know how much is down there, onshore or offshore, we do not know what proportion is retrievable and we know very little about the likely cost of extraction. We also have much to learn about the potential environmental impact, given the political need to reassure the public that shale gas can be extracted safely. Almost everything I heard at Burlington House was reassuring, but the truth is that everyone has been caught a little by surprise by the speed of events and there is a need to catch up. Most of the studies produced so far in the US and here lack peer review. There is an urgent need for independent peer-reviewed assessment to identify low risks—the things we do not have to worry about—and those that are high risk that need to be regulated for public safety and to satisfy public opinion. There is a need to collect much more data.
If we are to have a sane energy policy, we need to know much more about these hugely important changes in the world’s energy resources and markets as a matter of some urgency. An article in the May edition of the journal of the Foundation for Science and Technology, entitled “The gas supply revolution”, by Malcolm Brinded, former executive director of Shell’s Upstream International business, provides compelling evidence in support of that argument, whether the primary concern is global warming, energy security or cost.
I believe that DECC should be encouraging a substantial research programme, perhaps jointly with the countries in eastern Europe that have vast reserves but could make good use of our expertise and regulatory experience. The funding councils stand back from such programmes, believing that it is a job for the oil industry, but researchers outside the oil industry have to be more and more involved if we are to get the information that we need. I do not apologise for saying all this on the back of a report on nuclear research. We need to have a properly co-ordinated programme of research that covers the main energy sources. They need to be looked at together. I have no doubt that this is a topic to which the Select Committee will have to return.
I turn to the subject of the UK nuclear industry’s potential,
“contribution to jobs, growth and high value exports”,
to pick up a quotation from the Government’s response. The Times, in a leading article on 11 June, observed that we need,
“to identify sectors, such as creative and professional services, health care and pharmaceuticals, the growth of which could make Britain a net exporter”.
The committee heard ample evidence that, despite several decades of government neglect, nuclear should be included in that list. I refer to paragraphs 67 and 68 of our report, which contain the TSB’s estimate that the global nuclear fission market is worth about £600 billion for new nuclear build and £250 billion for decommissioning, waste treatment and disposal over the next 20 years, with considerable opportunities for UK businesses. Paragraph 68 describes the R and D competition that the TSB has launched for feasibility studies targeted at SMEs, which could become part of a new nuclear supply chain and its likely future round of investment for larger collaborative R and D.
Evidence in paragraphs 72 to 74 suggested that the real opportunity would be,
“‘taking a lead now in the development of some of the technologies for future systems’ so that the UK had an exportable technology in two, three or four decades time and could take advantage of the ‘£1.7 trillion of investment worldwide’ in these technologies”.
Mr Ric Parker of Rolls-Royce told us that,
“there are two clear areas for the UK to play a role in the development of these technologies: the prime investment is in high-integrity manufacturing, monitoring and some of the technical and engineering support for these new facilities”.
He also thought that,
“small reactors, of the 200-, 300 megawatt size … could be a major earner for the UK”.
Paragraph 5 of the Government’s response talked of a commitment to securing the maximum economic benefit to the UK from investment in nuclear power generation. That will require more effective joined-up government, particularly between DECC and BIS, than we detected in the evidence that we received; and more effective international co-operation, something that has already been mentioned by colleagues, including the reinstatement of the UK’s active membership of the Generation IV Forum—our recommendation 5. The encouraging reality is that nuclear is not just a costly necessity but provides a huge opportunity for the growth of a large and profitable international industrial sector. We must seize that opportunity.
My Lords, I never thought that I would, in these hallowed places, praise the Daily Mail. However, last March, just over a year ago, Michael Hanlon, the scientific correspondent, did a great public service in demonstrating the fact that the Fukushima disaster should not turn us away from nuclear energy. He pointed out on 31 March, just three weeks after the accident, that 20,000 people had died in the flooding but nobody had died as a result of the nuclear explosion. He pointed out too that nuclear workers who were trying to deal with the problem might, with their protective suits, at worst—I am speaking as a biologist—have an extra 1% or 2% chance of developing a cancer as a consequence. He pointed out that, at Chernobyl, far more people were killed as a result of a reaction to the explosion than as a result of the nuclear reaction itself. One of the things that Mr Hanlon pointed out in his various writings on the subject was that politicians—I am not referring particularly to British politicians—really ought to have known better, and that we actually need to be much more aware of a balanced view about nuclear power.
I say all that because one of the things that our report focuses on is the issue of public engagement, and the issue of public understanding of what is involved. This is still an issue today. Only yesterday, there was coverage in the Welsh papers about Wylfa B and how PAWB is congratulating itself that the Minister is now dead in the water with his plans for it, while the Minister—Mr Hendry—was pointing out that he would persist with his plans for that part of the world. People have to understand that nuclear reactors actually release less radioactive material than do coal-fired power stations, and that if we abandoned nuclear completely it would increase the amount of nuclear radiation around us.
I have just come back from the Cheltenham Science Festival. It is an amazing event which lasts five days, where scientists from all over and outside this country come to present their various sciences to the public. What was so dissatisfactory and disappointing was that at this outstanding festival—it is probably the best public engagement in the world at a science festival—in 200 representations, events, lectures and various symposia, there was not a single one on nuclear fission. EDF was present with its tent. As the Minister will know, EDF spends some €350 million a year on R and D in this area, and it spends 8% of that in the UK. At this meeting, EDF said privately that it cannot find enough young people to help it with this research and go into the industry. That links in pretty well with what the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, said about our need to link with industry.
Certainly, talking to various young people doing nuclear physics at that meeting in Cheltenham, it was obvious that there are some really outstanding scientists. One of my colleagues, who trained at Imperial College, for example, clearly had an extremely promising career but now cannot find any post-doctoral or further research position to continue her work in nuclear physics. This is a terrible blight on our young generation, as it is when we come to recruiting PhD students. With the extreme tension at the engineering office of the sciences research council and the fact that in real terms we have lost 16% of our budget, it is massively difficult to see how we can really maintain this expertise in which we led the world. Only 40 years ago, we were spending nearly £500 million on research in this area. Under different successive Governments—no one Government are to blame—we ended up spending probably a post-doctoral scientist’s research salary and a bit more besides, which is really quite shocking. It is now slightly creeping up, but the pressure is massive and not one that can be undertaken with the constraints that apply to our two research councils most involved in this area. There is also a clear need that if we are really to have the public behind us and with this very important initiative, we have to be seen to be listening to the public much better than we have been doing. Aspects of public engagement have been pretty unsophisticated, and they need to include a recognition that we as scientists have to show our responsibility and concerns about the ethics of what we do and involve social scientists in government to work out how best to do that. This is still a major problem.
Recently in a debate in the Chamber, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, argued that we on the Select Committee are not interested in social sciences. I am afraid that he is mistaken. So much of the work that we do is involved in social sciences, and we take it very seriously. Of course, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has also tried very hard to get involved with things like dialogue and better public engagement and has tried to support it a great deal. But it is really very important that the Government do that. If we do public engagement with the issues involved in nuclear, it is actually a generic area; the skills we would learn from this contentious area apply increasingly to a whole range of technologies as science develops and becomes increasingly important in our society. I hope that the Government can do something towards this and do what is essential to make this a much more acceptable technology, which will I hope be better funded in consequence.
My Lords, we are already at a point in this debate when much that must be said has been said. As the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, pointed out, the energy world has changed a great deal since the report was published, but I still believe that it is crucial to retain nuclear power as one of the low-cost carbon options in the UK energy strategy, despite the increasing awareness of the vast potential of low-cost shale gas and concern about the failures at Fukushima.
Nuclear power is the most mature of the three major low-carbon options in our strategy and is vastly better understood in terms of performance, maintenance and cost than offshore wind, let alone carbon capture and storage. However, there is no denying that the possibility worldwide of cheaper natural gas, even if there is not very much of it directly under the UK—although, as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, there may be some under the waters adjacent to us—together with, illogically in my mind, the safety concerns resulting from the Fukushima failure that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has just addressed, have made the nuclear option less attractive, so much so that those who were to supply our new plants have either delayed their commitments, as with EDF, or, in the case of RWE and E.On, withdrawn completely. Of course, there are others who may be willing to build our plants, such as the Chinese and the Russians.
It is, no doubt, because of the change in the general energy supply outlook that the Government decided to introduce contracts for difference to provide a more favourable pricing environment for potential bidders. These CFDs are being viewed by some as a hidden subsidy for nuclear power which, as we all know, the Government have sworn that they would not allow. They argue that the CFDs are available for all low-carbon options, not just nuclear, and that it has always been assumed that it would be necessary to subsidise low-cost carbon alternatives, at least initially. This is not, therefore, in their mind, a subsidy that singles out nuclear. On balance, I agree with that argument and, in any case, I have always felt that the first implementation of any new technology needs some form of financial assistance.
On the basis that this is not the time to abandon plans for maintaining, or even growing, our nuclear base, the recommendations of the Select Committee’s report that will restore and update our knowledge base are powerful and should be implemented. I was highly encouraged by the positive response from the Government to many of our recommendations. I join others in complimenting our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for the strong way in which he led the inquiry and the focus he maintained on the importance of re-establishing a competitive, well co-ordinated R and D base for the nuclear industry.
First and foremost, as no doubt many have said and will say, we need a comprehensive R and D strategy, as laid out in our first recommendation, that looks as far ahead as 2050. The output of this strategy will be a road map, which although it is not stated, will have to be reviewed every few years to ensure that it is keeping up with unpredictable developments. Along with many others, I am pleased that our recommendation to set up an advisory board to oversee and co-ordinate this R and D programme was accepted. As we have heard, the board has already met, but we are yet to learn who is going to pay for all this and for how long the payment will be maintained. Our chairman has said, perhaps in another place, that we may have to return to this to ensure that the programme continues.
I spoke in the Queen’s Speech debate about the need to increase the resources that we devote to R and D in the broader context of the economy, very much along the lines of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. At present, largely because of the dramatic fall in our manufacturing output, we lag far behind our competitors in R and D spend as a fraction of GDP. The dangers of allowing this to happen are no better illustrated than by our current predicament with nuclear power. We can no longer build nuclear plants ourselves and therefore lack the ability to determine our own future.
Fortunately, in the case of nuclear R and D, the Government agree with our concern and with our wish to restore our nuclear R and D capability so that we can support the new-generation plants and better deal with the already existing and giant problem of disposing of our legacy waste. We need not do this in isolation from the rest of the world. We should, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested to me yesterday, collaborate with others, especially the French, who have world-leading capability. In giving evidence to us, Mr Bernard Bigot, chairman of France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, which, incidentally, has 4,500 people working on nuclear energy R and D with a budget of €1.2 billion—the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to the comparison between our 2% effort and theirs—said:
“So I think you should build expertise in your country and share expertise with others in order to strengthen your capacity”.
He made it clear that the French would he happy to collaborate with us.
I finish by asking the Minister to assure us that the Government’s commitment to restore our R and D base in nuclear power is firm and that the full potential of nuclear technology for this country will be realised.
My Lords, I would like to take up the point about public engagement made by my noble friend Lord Winston and the importance of getting people in this country to understand the vital necessity of having more nuclear power capacity.
Twenty years ago, in common with many people in this country, I was opposed to the extension of our capacity for nuclear power. This was largely because of the problems of the disposal of nuclear waste and its persistence in the environment, which have still not been solved. This was reinforced early in my time in the Lords when I was sent as a representative of the Environment Committee to a weekend conference in Iceland on marine wildlife. The main concern of the Icelanders was the radioactive isotopes in their fish, which were traceable to leakages from Sellafield. As a balancing act they hoped that we would agree to their resumed hunting of minke whales. Over the past 20 years, however, I have come to realise that the only effective solution to our short-term energy needs and the overriding importance of mitigating climate change is nuclear power. I therefore support all the recommendations in our report.
One of the great drawbacks of democracy is that it inhibits long-term strategic planning because of the short-term needs of politicians to be re-elected. Nuclear power is essentially an unpopular policy for many of our electorate. It also may require greater investment and mean weaning people off their love for motor cars and dependency on oil. Long-term strategies may also imply government investment and the raising of taxes. Although the Government’s formal response to our report is encouraging, when he gave evidence to us the Minister was extraordinarily complacent, relying entirely on fossil fuel technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which is still at an experimental stage, and fracking, which always sounds to me rather indecent—and which also may be more problematic in this country because of the clay content of our soils and because our oil shales are much deeper than those in the United States. Even if successful, both these technologies will ultimately run out of their basic raw materials. Therefore, I hope that the forthcoming strategy that the Government are to produce will be more realistic about the need for nuclear power.
At the moment the Government seem to have no sense of the urgency of our need for research capacity, which has been underfunded for the past 20 years. We have an ageing population of nuclear scientists and astonishingly have withdrawn from the international forum for generation IV development. Government action is urgently needed now to provide a strategic plan and sufficient investment to ensure the security of this country’s energy supply and the long-term aim of mitigating climate change. So far there is little indication of the necessary urgency.
My Lords, I congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and fellow committee members for an excellent report, which seems to have shocked the Government out of their complacency. A number of noble Lords have mentioned that word in relation to the evidence that was given. It seems that the report has engendered a different response and indicated that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. I congratulate the committee on achieving that change.
I will quickly try to summarise a few of the issues raised by noble Lords. The theme that seems to be emerging is that there has been a lack of a long-term strategy. That has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. There are two clear recommendations on the way to address this. It would be great to hear the Minister comment on those. One is the creation of a hub, where we can our co-ordinate our R and D efforts. The noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Chesterton and Lord Jenkin of Roding, mentioned that particularly. Also, in parallel with the creation of this more coherent strategy, noble Lords are seeking clarity about the status of the advisory body that has been created. Will it be given an executive power, as the noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Krebs, have asked?
As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has said, there seems to be an important public engagement question around nuclear power. I have been doing my own investigations into nuclear power, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, has alluded, and it has been a fascinating journey. I have visited many places and have just come back from a trip to the national nuclear laboratory at Oak Ridge in the US. This morning I was in one of the laboratories at Cambridge University that has a great heritage as regards nuclear research. However, all this seems to be slightly frozen in time. Once we were a great nation as regards innovation and pure research into nuclear physics. We have lost that. It is not just us. Other nations, the US included, have gone on to look at other, perhaps more exciting topics, around nuclear fusion or pure particle physics.
How do we get people really excited in the idea that they have a future career in nuclear fission? That is the question. A number of noble Lords have raised this, including my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon. The big imperative here is the tackling of climate change, and the need to move to a low-carbon economy. If we want young people who are interested in that agenda to think “nuclear” in response to that question, we have a challenge ahead of us. It would be interesting to hear from the Government, now that they are out of their complacent mode and into active mode and looking to address this, what plans we have for a much more diverse set of technologies that is discussed in the public discourse around nuclear fission.
My noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton mentioned that we have in the past coupled nuclear fission for energy with military purposes, but the spectrum of technologies for nuclear is very broad. At one end it is used for medical isotopes that save people’s lives, and at the very far end you have nuclear weapons. Nuclear power sits somewhere in the middle. I wonder if perhaps a hub cannot be created where we look at the other end of the spectrum, where we bring medical uses of nuclear and power together. That might help with the public engagement question and create new frontiers. If you want to attract people into this sector, they are not going to be excited by small modifications of existing technology that is more than 40 years old. They need a new scientific frontier in which they feel that they can make their mark and have a career that will lead to all sorts of recommendations, accolades and, ultimately, jobs. What are the new frontiers in nuclear fission? That is an important question that we have to think about. We must not simply see this as a limited set of technologies, as we perhaps have in the past. There are more than 900 different reactor designs that could be conceived of; we seem to be fixated only on a narrow range. In terms of public engagement and bringing people into the sector, those are key questions.
A number of noble Lords have made reference to the Government’s proposals for the existing electricity market reforms, the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, among them. There is a question over this and it would be good to hear how things are proceeding. We have seen in the headlines since this report was issued a number of changes of state of some of the projects that we were expecting to go forward. Are our plans on track? If not, perhaps we could have some words on how we are going to address that.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, mentioned our plutonium storage in Sellafield. There are ways of tackling this that go beyond simply repeating the Mox experiments of the past. I will not go into details, but that is a clear need for us. We tend to view, perhaps, plutonium as a liability, but there are technologies out there that could turn it into a very valuable asset. We need to be looking at that, and I hope that it will form part of the strategy.
I hope that I have not glossed over too many of the questions. This is my first time attempting to sum up a debate, and I am very humbled to be here on such an important debate with such eminent people speaking. I will finish there, if that is okay. I again welcome the report and thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his colleagues for such an excellent contribution and the effect that it has had in galvanising the Government.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her star performance at the Dispatch Box. Of course, there have been star performances overall. We have a galaxy of scientific brains here. I wore my special tie with stars on it because I knew there would be. Of course, this report is a credit to the House of Lords, on which I congratulate the committee and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—and, of course, for his work on the climate change committee, for which we in our department are so grateful. Of course, as you can imagine, a lot of this is way above my head. I was reflecting on my own school report the other day, and pulled it out to see what it said about my science O-level. It was one simple sentence: “This boy will not be a scientist”.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the committee did not call me to give evidence, because I am not sure I could have added much other than some of my limited business experience of a few years. One point that is fundamental to understanding this nuclear issue is that for 27 years we have had no nuclear business. We have had nothing to export and no expertise to grow because there has been no future for the younger generations that have been mentioned to work into. Because there has been no activity in the nuclear world, we have also had the brain drain. I have been quite interested in what this committee would have said had it come up with this report five years ago and am slightly depressed by some things that some noble Lords have said about the Government not doing enough.
I want to mention some of the things that we have done. We have been in power for two years, in which time we have identified and given clearance for eight nuclear sites to go ahead. We have persuaded companies to come back and invest in the United Kingdom. We brought planning back to the Secretary of State so that we can clear the decks for a lot of the planning issues that are there. We have agreed and brought into law provisions, which were drawn in this House, for two new nuclear reactors so that they can be used immediately. We have dealt with the appalling mess, which preceding Governments should be ashamed of, over the decommissioning waste that was left up at Sellafield. I have brought in a plan whereby waste is going to be exported from all of our shockingly badly managed waste pools during this Parliament. We have revolutionised the security of our nuclear power stations and have set a very clear mandate for those investing in nuclear in this country about their security requirements. We have totally overhauled the civil nuclear police force, in a process that has happened very quickly—it is not quite finished yet, but is happening now. We have announced electricity market reform and contracts for difference to set the framework for a clear pathway for investment. On decommissioning, I have persuaded the Treasury, amid the appalling economic climate that we have inherited, to invest £10 billion of new money in our nuclear waste and decommissioning. We have made very significant strides. To touch on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, we have committed and commissioned a business case for a Mox plant, which will solve the huge plutonium pile that we have inherited as a Government.
If that is not enough, think of the backdrop that we have inherited—Fukushima, Switzerland and Germany withdrawing from nuclear as a result, and the appalling balance sheets that E.On and RWE have as a result of Germany withdrawing. I do not need to dwell on it for too long, but we have inherited unprecedented economic conditions that have made investment into anything new by any industries, let alone by Government, extremely vulnerable and volatile. However, it is not all bad. The UK has come out of it as a world leader—not a world leader in the technology but in the way that it reacted to those horrific events at Fukushima. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned, we are indebted to the work of Mike Weightman, who has, in a great credit to our country, been asked to come up with a report for the future of nuclear. We noble Lords have, as a group, responded with great diligence and calmness to all the activity going on, and this report adds to the momentum that we are trying to create.
Because we have now got our inherited nuclear industry into better shape, we have started exporting our skills abroad. It was only last week that I hosted the entire Abu Dhabi nuclear organisation and their security people here. We are now signing a memorandum of understanding and supplying security expertise and waste management expertise to them. We have a draft memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia to do the same. Of course, as regards the continued fall-out from Japan, we are right at the forefront of advising on it. It is a question of getting that export focus and the confidence back into our industry. Despite our not being in the vanguard of new nuclear, we still have terrific expertise in this country of which we should be proud.
We readily dismiss the assertion that we are not investing enough in R and D. We have spent £500 million on R and D through the NDA in the past four years. That is not an inconsiderable amount of money. We have invested £20 million on R and D on fission alone in the past four years. Therefore, it is not all bad news. There is a lot of good news. I hope that the committee will give us some credit for that.
I now wish to deal quickly, as I know that the noble Lord, Lord Winston—
I am merely giving the figures concerning investment by the NDA in nuclear R and D. I am very happy to supply the noble Lord with a breakdown of the figures on an annual basis, and as regards fission. I am happy to supply the noble Lord with those figures and place them in the Library.
I will not dwell for too long on some of the specific points that were raised in the debate as the Government have responded to the report. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has asked for a credible plan. He knows that the credible plan will be developed before the end of the year. He is absolutely right to hold us to task and to say that we should not be complacent and ensure that we have the right advisory board in place that has executive powers to create the momentum that we are determined to develop. The noble Lord mentioned the Generation IV International Forum. Professor MacKay has been asked to come up with his consideration and advice on that. Again, it is not a case of pushing it into the long grass. We will receive his considered reply and I am glad that he found favour with the committee. The NNL reports to me. I will discuss it in a bit more detail in a minute but it is developing a business case for the new facilities. I suspect that that will be positive. As we know, the ONR is considering what the position will be as regards the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee and establishment. Therefore, I hope that within the next few months we will have a straight edge on that. We have committed to doing that. That was one of the positive things in the report. As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is right to hold us to account and make sure that what we have said takes place.
I have mentioned Mox, to which my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding referred. We remain very open-minded as regards PRISM. It is not yet a proven technology. It may be so in time but the industry has on many occasions gone down following the introduction of new technologies which have had disastrous consequences, as, indeed, did the previous Mox plant. However, as I am responsible for Mox I take on board what the noble Lord says.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, talked about a plan. However, there is a 2050 plan, which is a long enough vision as far as I am concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, spoke about the NNL. The NNL reports to me. We have just reappointed the chairman. I have been working very closely with him and I am disappointed that the impact has not been seen.
The NNL is a profitable organisation, and it should not be dismissed but its biggest client is a government entity—the NDA. The NNL does a fantastic job; its management team is in the right place, whereas three or four years ago it probably was not. It has done a terrific job in the pay negotiations, which have given certainty to their staff for the future, and I have no doubt that there will be an increase in their activity as, wearing my other hat as the Prime Minister’s trade ambassador, we seek to promote their activity and skill abroad. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell talks about shale gas. In the past few weeks, at my instigation we have set up the office of shale gas assessment to make sure that we can establish public confidence in shale gas. We all know how difficult it is to do things on land in the UK, and it is very important that we establish public confidence.
The noble Lord rightly refers to the abundance of gas in the world—there is effectively 240 years of gas. As I have told noble Lords before, I have been in Algeria recently where they have discovered as much shale gas as there is in America, which will one hopes have long-term effects on our pricing. We have had a record number of licence applications for exploration off our coasts, so one hopes that we can develop that side of things.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, talks about Wylfa, which is a problem, as we know and as has been well documented in the press, and we are in active negotiations with several parties. I cannot go into detail but they are positive negotiations and clearly we are determined to find a solution for Wylfa, because it is key and the second phase of our rollout. The noble Lord referred with great knowledge to education. If we can get a viable future for nuclear in this country, the jobs will flood back, and we must be there to take them. The universities—and I greatly appreciate the noble Lord’s influence on this—should be there to provide courses for them.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for his support and the work that he has done on the committee, and the discussions and input that he had before. The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, mentioned fission, which is important and not something that we should be complacent about. It is something that we should explore, but we should explore every avenue and create the hub to which the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. That is why the manufacturing and engineering capacity through the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre could and does act as the hub, but we must put greater importance on it to achieve the vision that we all have. I am looking at my watch because I am mindful, along with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that we may be 1-0 down by the time we finish.
There is no doubt that we have to play catch-up, and we all understand that. This report helps us to identify the number of issues that we have and, of course, as a Government, we welcome it. It is incumbent on us all in this Room and in successive Governments to work together. The road map being put together by the Dalton Nuclear Institute and NLL, with input from the committee, has to set out our R and D capability and requirements. The Government have then to put their full weight behind it, not tiptoe behind it. It is key to future growth for this country, as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, and it is something very simple for us to attain. We will have the structure in place by the end of the year, and we must vest in it the authority that the committee looks for. Research and development is absolutely fundamental to the future, and as a Government we know it.
As I said earlier, we have a great deal to build on and we must not beat ourselves up. We have enormous skills and capabilities in this country in so many walks of life. We are the envy of the world for a lot of things we do. As has been demonstrated by the ONR with Mike Weightman, we have the expertise; we have Professor Beddington, who has tremendous status in the world, and we have a very good platform from which to develop.
As I said, we have a committed Science and Technology Committee and a Government committed to new nuclear, and I am very pleased to report that we have a company by the name of EDF which only today appointed Bouygues and Laing O’Rourke in a joint venture as a preferred bidder for Hinkley Point C main civil works contract. If that is not a good start, I do not know what is.
My Lords, I have very much enjoyed this debate, and would like to thank all those who have taken part in it. It demonstrates the depth of expertise in this House, which makes such a difference to the quality of debate on important issues such as the future of nuclear energy.
I also thank the Minister very much for his encouraging response. We all accept that the move ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations and the electricity market reforms are very significant steps forward in the role of nuclear in future energy supply. That in itself underlines the urgency of ensuring that we have an adequate R and D base and skills to procure, regulate and run the new generation of nuclear power stations.
I will not go on in any detail, because the Minister has left me minus one minute to allow the noble Lord, Lord Winston, to get in front of a television. Therefore, I shall delay noble Lords for only a few seconds longer.
I sound just one note of warning about shale gas. Of course, noble Lords are right to reflect that there is a large amount of shale gas in the world—in fact, without carbon capture and storage, enough to fry us all many times over. So shale gas has to go with CCS, which is an unproven technology, whereas nuclear is a tried and tested technology. We must therefore not relinquish our commitment to nuclear because of the hope of shale gas with CCS, unless we are prepared to fry.
I reiterate what has been said by other noble Lords during this debate. We are encouraged by the Government’s response, and thank them for that, but wish to keep our eye on things. I am very encouraged that the Minister has emphasised the executive powers and continuation of the R and D board, and we will want to keep a close eye on that to make sure that the important recommendations that we have made are carried through. I thank all those that have taken part.
Committee adjourned at 7.48 pm.