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Nuclear Power Stations

Volume 799: debated on Monday 9 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of a warming climate on the operational risks of nuclear power stations, particularly in the light of the reduction in capacity of nuclear reactors in France in the July heatwave.

My Lords, companies involved in the civil nuclear industry are required to meet robust standards that are overseen by independent regulators. These standards include keeping plants safe against the effects of climate change, as demonstrated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation jointly publishing guidance with the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales in March this year.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but I did not hear anything about climate change. If noble Lords remember, this Parliament declared—I think it was at the end of April—a climate emergency. Every year, the Greenland ice sheet loses 300 cubic kilometres of ice on average—that is just Greenland—and we could face sea level rises. I would have liked to have heard some policies that are a little different from any standards that have gone before, because we need new, tougher standards.

The noble Baroness raises issues about climate change, which I will address head-on. The Office for Nuclear Regulation must not only anticipate but mitigate any potential problems that might occur, which will include not only sea level rise but sea temperature rise. In every instance, it must put forward robust strategies to ensure that at all points nuclear safety is paramount.

My Lords, is not the conundrum here that, while higher global temperatures may affect nuclear power, nuclear power itself can make a major contribution to combating global warming by producing massive amounts of low-carbon electricity? Can my noble friend give us an assurance that in doing so, costs can be kept down, particularly in relation to Hinkley Point, as they are rising rapidly? Could he make sure that we have a proper debate on this whole subject when we come back, as things are not going very well at present?

My noble friend is of course absolutely correct that nuclear power itself is a means of reducing carbon emissions, and it will remain part of our electricity generation mix—necessarily so, as it is already 20% at present. When Hinkley Point comes online it will represent 7% of the overall electricity generated in the entire United Kingdom. It is therefore important that we are able to ensure that nuclear remains a component part of our offering and our energy reduction. It is also important to recognise that one of the conditions of the nuclear strategy which we have put forward—the £200 million fund—is that there is a significant reduction in the cost of the production of nuclear energy. That will represent a 20% reduction overall, which must be part of that strategy. We are alert to these issues. Again, the time is right for a proper debate on the wider questions, which I suspect my noble friend would have raised had we had more time.

My Lords, I welcome the new Minister to his position. He will be aware that I usually use this opportunity to conflate nuclear power with energy storage. With high-capacity energy storage, the need for nuclear becomes much less critical. There are also short-term issues around storage, which we saw on 9 August, when there were blackouts across large swathes of England. The cost of replacing that short-term storage is about £1 billion to double it to 2,000 megawatts. What is the Government’s plan for storage, what money is available, and how is it being invested to deliver a robust system?

I thank the noble Lord for his welcome. Storage must be at the heart of our strategy, because we cannot get to net zero by 2050 without it. We will need to significantly increase our investment in this type of technology to understand it well. He will of course be aware that one of the most successful forms of storage is the pumped hydro, which again we need to examine in its manifest forms.

My Lords, what action are the Government taking to develop the scientific method to withdraw CO2 from our environment? We have passed the point when we can deal with climate change simply through reducing our emissions. One of the absolutely key answers has to be withdrawing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The noble Baroness asks a simple question which will get a complicated response. A number of changes must take place in greening and reducing our emissions, not least within our domestic environment. We need to move away from the gas in our homes and the hydrocarbons in our cars, and we need to do that in the short term. We need a new strategy which will address the culture. This is not just about what government can do; it has to be about what individual households can do, recognising the cost of each change. We have a strategy, which is available on our website.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned pumped hydro. He will be aware of the role played by the Dinorwig scheme, which in its day was the largest in the world, although it is not quite that now. Are there more such schemes, and are they geared to the two-lake solution or to estuarial pumping, back up the valleys from where the rivers came?

The noble Lord is right to rejoice in the success that Wales has had in pumped storage. There are moves afoot on the part of a number of companies to expand existing hydro plants. The future is of course dependent on how we can mitigate some of the costs involved in such large-scale projects, but they will fit into both categories if we can find the right balance of incentive to encourage these sorts of developments.

My Lords, the Question relates to the resilience of nuclear electricity generation. Given the relative lack of progress beyond Hinkley in renewing the nuclear fleet and its possible contribution to that resilience, what progress are the Government making on the introduction of more small modular nuclear reactors for electricity generation?

My noble friend is right to remind us that not all nuclear reactors need to be on a large scale. Small modular reactors certainly have a place in our strategy. We are putting forward up to £80 million to develop this kind of technology, to help us to tackle the issue. It will help us to make a substantial difference to our climate change initiatives.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to a wider strategy and all the points that have been raised, but the Question refers to learning lessons from the reduction during the heatwave in capacity in the French nuclear power system. Is he utterly confident that the French system will share those results in view of our imminent departure from Euratom and ending all other agreements with our French partners?

The noble Lord will be aware that the French nuclear system is based primarily on riverine cooling, whereas that in the UK is based on marine cooling. Two plants in France had to be turned off because of the situation in the rivers. We do not have any issues in that regard, but we will learn lessons because it is important to do so. The Office for Nuclear Regulation must learn lessons not only from what happens at home but from what happens abroad.

My Lords, before the Summer Recess, the Government agreed that the UK should have a zero-carbon target for 2050. I cannot remember if that was from this Government or the May Government. Can the Minister confirm that that is still the Government’s position, although what is more important is meeting the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee? When will we have an updated clean growth strategy?

It was our Government. We will have an updated clean growth strategy because it is absolutely vital. We will need to be bold about taking ourselves forward to net zero by 2050, because our present initiatives are not adequate to deliver that. There will need to be a significant refresh not just of the wider clean growth strategy but of all aspects of this covering all government departments.

My Lords, taking up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on banishing CO2 altogether, surely we will have to stop breathing out.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister to go back to the Question, and to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Whitty. We rely to a fair degree on electricity from nuclear power stations in France. What assessment has been made of the position whereby the French, because of climate change, should decide that they cannot maintain the same level of supply as in the past? What guarantees do we have that that will not happen, and what assessment has been made of how we will make up a shortfall?

The simple answer is that we cannot guarantee what the French nuclear system will do. France is an independent nation in that regard. We have to make sure that our provision is adequate to ensure that the lights do not go off and that the supply of electricity is absolutely maintained. That is why we rely not solely on nuclear but on a breadth of electricity generation. We will continue to do so at the safest levels possible.