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Nuclear Power: Future Energy Needs

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 17 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on the United Kingdom’s future energy needs of any decision by Hitachi to withdraw from the Wylfa Newydd nuclear project and Toshiba having withdrawn from the Moorside project in Cumbria.

My Lords, the noble Lord’s Question is timely. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be making a Statement in another place following Hitachi’s announcement this morning; I would have been happy to repeat it. National Grid has confirmed that it does not see an issue for future security of supply for plans for these projects over the long term, and there is plenty of time for the market to respond.

My Lords, our nuclear industry is in crisis; I have to say that that Answer has a certain element of complacency in it. In the 1950s, our nation led the world in nuclear power generation, and decisions by successive Governments of all hues have got us into the position today where we cannot even construct a large civil nuclear reactor. A quarter of our energy is provided by nuclear; looking at 2035, when the energy requirements will be much larger, we are saying that a third of our energy will be supplied by nuclear. Now the only player seems to be Chinese. Bearing in mind our view on the rollout of 5G, are we happy for the Chinese, by 2035, to control one-third of the energy supply of our nation?

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord stresses the importance of the nuclear industry and the fact that it is supplying some 20% of our electricity requirements and 40% of low-carbon electricity. Some 15 nuclear reactors operate throughout the UK. We would have hoped for a better announcement from Hitachi but that was not the case, and it is obviously right that my right honourable friend looks to the taxpayer to make sure that there is the appropriate deal for them. At the moment, costs in the nuclear sector are still rising, at a time when costs for a great many renewables are coming down. That is one of the reasons why there are problems. However, the fact is that we have seen the development of Hinkley C, and, as the noble Lord was quite right to suggest, we are the first Government for a number of years to make progress in that area.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, with the possible withdrawal of the Japanese from Wylfa and their withdrawal anyway from Moorside, and with the Chinese building at Bradwell, involved in Sizewell C—which has not been mentioned yet—and of course financing Hinkley C, this places the Chinese, as the noble Lord, Lord West, rightly said, in pole position in the rebuilding and replacement of our nuclear fleet? Does the Minister agree that this will have a major impact on our UK energy policy, which already has all its problems, and will he ask his government colleagues, including the Whips, whether we can have a serious and urgent debate on this whole matter, which has major implications for national security and policy?

My noble friend is quite right. That was the tail end of the question from the noble Lord, Lord West; I apologise to the House for not being able to address it in the time that was available to me. I certainly agree that it would be timely to have a debate on this in the light of the recent announcement; I was hoping to be able to repeat the Statement, and perhaps there might be other moments when this could happen. However, obviously that is a matter for the usual channels.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that putting Wylfa Newydd on indefinite hold causes economic planning blight in north-west Wales, and the north Wales growth deal is based on the assumption that it is going ahead? Will the Government now raise the level of support allocated to this region?

My Lords, I am aware of that growth deal, but I do not accept the noble Lord’s suggestion that this in effect scuppers that—I cannot remember what precise words he used. Obviously, it makes life more difficult, and we would not have wished to have to make this Statement, but it is also right that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State looks to the calls on the taxpayer and ensures that we get a good deal for any investment we make.

My Lords, the Minister said that the market has time to respond. The market has responded. EDF caught a cold and got cold feet, Toshiba has pulled out, Hitachi has pulled out. What is the market in large nuclear generation and what is the Government’s plan B if they fail to deliver the financial engineering, as they clearly are at the moment?

My Lords, in responding to questions of this sort at the Dispatch Box, it is difficult to go into the full details of what was planned. As I said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will make a Statement any minute now on the subject—I am waiting for a signal. I would have been happy to have repeated it, but no doubt the noble Lord and I, and others, can discuss it afterwards, and there may be other opportunities to have a wider debate on the subject.

My Lords, this is the second major blow to the long-term strategy of electricity supply here in the United Kingdom. As my noble friend Lord West pointed out, we cannot deliver this technology ourselves, having been a world leader for decades. If we cannot trust the Chinese with optical fibre technology, are we really going to put all our eggs in the Chinese basket on nuclear technology?

My Lords, as I said, this announcement is not welcome. I should have preferred to have had more time to debate it in a proper and timely manner. Nevertheless, we remain committed to nuclear power. The noble Lord will remember our nuclear sector deal. We will look to see what we can do. We still have a great deal of expertise in this country, and I think we can work on that.