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Nuclear Energy Policy: Climate Change

Volume 671: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to introduce this important debate tonight.

Our country’s ever-increasing energy requirements and, more importantly, how those requirements are met have long been the source of much debate under Governments of all political colours. Hitting the right energy mix is the aim of all high-consumption countries around the world but, of course, it is easier said than done.

Never has the energy mix been more evident than in my constituency of Ynys Môn in north Wales. Wave and solar energy specialists on Ynys Môn are leading the way in their respective fields, and some of the first offshore wind prototypes were tested on the island. However, this is only part of the all-important energy mix.

New nuclear power has the capability to meet rising demand, and this Conservative Government can be incredibly proud that the UK is the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law with a carbon target of net zero by 2050. Wylfa Newydd on Ynys Môn is critical to achieving that target for a number of reasons, and I will touch on only a few of the most salient points tonight.

First, there is rising demand for electricity, and the Committee on Climate Change predicts that demand to double. The electricity we produce cannot be any electricity: it must come from clean sources and, of course, it must be dependable. This report introduces the idea of firm power—electricity generation that can be relied on to supply demand at all times. We cannot ignore our population’s ever-increasing requirement for electricity as we decarbonise heat and transport.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on a vital subject and on her wonderful introduction. Does she agree that, as with all things in life, a balance must be struck and that we must balance the provision of energy with a safe and secure foundation for that provision? Does she also agree that nuclear power, which I support, is not the answer to all our needs but is currently necessary and that, while we consider viable replacements for nuclear energy, we must take care of our nuclear plants to the highest safety standards?

This reactor technology is proven and has already been delivered four times. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this technology must be proven to be safe.

Secondly, nuclear power fits in with decarbonisation both here and in the world at large. Nuclear energy has been powering UK homes since 1956, doing the heavy lifting of decarbonisation long before global warming was near the political agenda. According to the “Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2019” published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, nuclear power provides over 45% of our domestically generated clean power. Over the next decade, however, all but one of our current fleet is due to come offline. If that capacity is not replaced with nuclear, our emissions will go up.

Countries such as Germany have tried to decarbonise by shutting down their nuclear power stations and opening open-cast lignite coal mines—the dirtiest form of coal possible—to keep the lights on when their wind and solar fleet is not generating enough electricity. Their long-term solution is to pipe in gas from Russia, but that is still a polluting fossil fuel. The Nord Stream 2 project risks Germany becoming too dependent on gas from Russia, at a time when the world’s political instabilities risk supply cut-off. This would not be an appropriate course of action for us to take.

If we were to exclude nuclear in the UK, we would need to install 478 GW of capacity, compared with between just 70 GW and 80 GW in a balanced mix. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded in 2018 that not only is it more difficult to reach net zero without nuclear, but it is significantly more expensive.

Lastly, but most importantly, for my constituents of Ynys Môn the economic benefits are clear. As a Government, we promised our voters in areas such as mine that they would not be forgotten any longer.

I wish to emphasise the point about economic benefits. An arc goes from Anglesey all the way up to Sellafield, with South Ribble and Mr Speaker’s own patch of Chorley very much at the heart of it. With the number of high-skilled, technical, brilliant engineers within that arc, it is not unusual for someone to live in Warrington and work in Anglesey one day, at Sellafield the next and at BAE Systems in Barrow the next. Does my hon. Friend agree that this proposal is economically vital for the north of Wales and the north-west of England?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that clear point about the nuclear arc and how this will benefit so many more people than just the people on Ynys Môn; it will benefit people throughout Wales. This nuclear arc is going to be very important.

If I may, I will continue. As I was saying, my constituents deserve jobs, skilled employment and investment to reduce dependency on the instability of seasonal tourism. Many of them tell me that they are worried about the future of the Welsh language, as our young people leave the island for cities across Wales and the north of England to gain meaningful employment. Once operational, Wylfa will create up to 850 permanent jobs, with 8,500 at the peak of construction, many of which would be highly skilled roles and training opportunities. We simply must turn the employment situation around on Anglesey and demonstrate that this Government are on the side of those who want to work hard and get on in life. There would also be thousands more jobs in the supply chain beyond the island in north Wales. Wylfa would undoubtedly see a multi-billion-pound investment into the region.

The hon. Lady is making some salient points about the importance of nuclear energy. Contracts from Hinkley Point C to suppliers in my constituency are worth more than £61 million, so many of my constituents will be keenly awaiting the energy White Paper to see what commitments are made to new nuclear projects that could bring even greater benefits locally. Does she agree that the Government should confirm the date on which this White Paper will be released, in order to give the 3,500 people employed in the civil nuclear industry in my constituency certainty over their futures?

I also thank all the people who work so hard at Sellafield on nuclear research. One of my asks of the Minister will indeed be about the timescale for our getting the White Paper.

If this project does not go ahead, these talented people will inevitably look further afield for work. We cannot and must not allow north Wales to lose out. Even so, it is not the north alone that would lose out; estimates put the wider benefit to Wales as a whole at about £5.7 billion. Moreover, after the plant begins to generate electricity, it is estimated that the contribution could be nearly £87 million in gross value added each year of its operation. As a scientist, I understand that these are not insignificant numbers. But even if we all agree that, as part of the energy mix, nuclear power is the way forward, why Wylfa? Why Ynys Môn? It is because Wylfa is hands down the best nuclear new build site in the UK. The local community on the island understand nuclear energy, having seen at first hand the benefits of the original Magnox station, and there is a large amount of support for the project locally. It is encouraging that despite many major political differences, there is cross-party support for this project, with senior figures from both Labour and Plaid Cymru backing the development.

The Wylfa project is all but ready to progress into construction. It is based on proven reactor technology, which has been delivered four times—on time and on budget in Japan—as elements of the design are based on modular construction. The advanced boiling water reactor has already been put through the UK nuclear regulator’s generic design assessment, a process which took nearly five years, and the development consent order is expecting a decision from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the end of March this year. If the process had to be restarted with a different developer, we are looking at the very least at another four to five years of delay. So much of the groundwork has been done. Why would we waste this opportunity? Why would we waste more time?

Financing the project through a model such as the regulated asset base will ensure that the project is funded and started as soon as possible. I would like to know when the Government intend to respond to the consultation responses on adopting such a financing model for new nuclear.

I share the hon. Member’s enthusiasm for advanced modular reactor and small modular reactor provision, particularly from the perspective of Hartlepool and as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nuclear. The important point is the money that is generated for the local economy. In Hartlepool, it is roughly £10 million for the local economy and 500 jobs. Does she agree that companies such as EDF that run our nuclear power stations are investing wisely in green alternative provision, so nuclear is effectively a bridge to that future?

Absolutely. This is a balanced approach to our energy. We need that so that we can achieve the 2050 target. Have the Government considered any robust alternatives to the RAB financing model? Will the Minister say when the Government will publish the energy White Paper?

In conclusion, this project is the only way forward to ensure that we can meet our 2050 target on decarbonisation. It renews the UK’s infrastructure, drives economic growth in the regions, boosts our manufacturing and construction sectors, and strengthens our links with key tier 1 non-EU partners—a vital source of investment and collaboration now that we have left the European Union. Most importantly, this Government and our message are all about people—people who put their trust in this Government to deliver. Our Prime Minister promised

“Colossal new investments in infrastructure, in science, using our incredible technological advantages to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth with the most far-reaching environmental programme.”

People and their priorities were at the heart of our successful election to government. Now we must deliver across the UK, particularly to constituencies such as mine, Ynys Môn. Let us unite this country, let us spread opportunity to every corner of the UK, with superb education, superb infrastructure, and technology. It is the people of Ynys Môn who will benefit most from Wylfa. Together we can realise the potential of Anglesey as the “Energy Island” and we can share in the opportunity and ambition to succeed in life that many neighbouring areas have come to expect as a given. I therefore urge the Government and the Minister not to forget about people when making the decision about the future of nuclear power and Wylfa Newydd specifically. The people of Ynys Môn and north Wales are looking to us to change their lives and give them hope and opportunity. In the words of the Prime Minister the day after the election:

“Those people who voted for us want change. We cannot—must not—let them down.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) not only on securing this evening’s debate, but on her fantastic recent election result. I thank colleagues who have made interventions—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and the hon. Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill). When the Cabinet went to Sunderland, the Prime Minister met an apprentice from Hartlepool. With regard to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, it is not just about apprentices; it is about skilled workers across the country, including in the north-west arc, dating all the way back, Mr Speaker, to 1956.

Quite right, Sir. It has been over three decades since Ynys Môn elected a Conservative Member of Parliament and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn over the coming years to ensure that this Government deliver for the people of her constituency and across the entire region of north Wales.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the important issue of nuclear energy, and I am eager to speak to her and the House this evening about the huge number of benefits that the UK expects to receive as a result of the Government’s commitment to the sector. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for her presence. She, too, takes an eager interest in nuclear power, not only because of her constituency and her constituents’ needs, but for the wellbeing of the energy sector nationally.

New nuclear is likely to have a significant role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. In September 2016, we gave the go-ahead to the first new nuclear power station in a generation, at Hinkley Point C; and in June 2018 we committed £200 million through our landmark nuclear sector deal, which includes millions of pounds for advanced nuclear technologies. The Government understand the important role that nuclear plays, and will continue to play, in our economy. That role includes ensuring that local and national benefits are realised, whether through increased employment opportunities or improvements in skills.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn reminded us, on 27 June 2019 the UK Government set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from across the whole UK economy by 2050. We were the first major economy in the world—followed by France and the rest of the EU—to legislate for net zero, and we want to deliver our commitments in a way that maximises the economic benefits of the transition to net zero. Between 1990 and 2017, we reduced emissions by more than 40% while at the same time growing our economy by more than two thirds, decarbonising our economy faster than any other G20 country. The net zero target requires us to build on that progress by transforming the whole of our economy and, of course, changing the culture in our society—our homes, our transport, our businesses and how we generate and use energy.

I thank my hon. Friend for talking about the energy White Paper. It will form a key part of our journey to net zero. To answer her question about its publication date, I can inform her that the Secretary of State has stated that she intends to publish the energy White Paper in the first quarter of this year. The White Paper will set out a clear, decisive strategy—a strategic approach to decarbonising energy, driving up clean growth opportunities and demonstrating international leadership in the build-up to COP26 at the end of the year. I am sure we are all delighted that COP26 is to be hosted in the great Scottish city of Glasgow.

Net zero is not just good for the environment; it is good business. It is already abundantly clear, however, that a substantial increase in low-carbon generation will be needed to reach net zero by 2050. Nuclear will have an important role to play in the UK’s future energy mix, providing firm low-carbon power and complementing variable renewable generation. Britain was the world’s first civil nuclear nation, and nuclear energy has powered homes and businesses in this country for more than 60 years. There are currently 15 nuclear reactors operating at eight sites throughout the UK, and they provide a fifth of our electricity. In 2016, the Government gave the go-ahead for the first new nuclear power station in a generation, at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Once operational, Hinkley will provide 3.2 GW of secure, low-carbon electricity for around 60 years, meeting an estimated 7% of the UK’s current electricity requirements. To put that another way, it will power nearly 6 million British homes—twice as many homes as there are in London.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Hinkley site, and it was incredible to see the sheer scale of the endeavour that is being undertaken. There has been significant progress at the site; in December, the developer announced that all key milestones for 2019 had been achieved. Those included the successful delivery of J-zero for the first reactor, which marked the point at which the foundations for unit 1 were complete and the above-ground work could commence. They also included the first big lift for Big Carl—who I met—the world’s largest land-based crane, which towers 250 metres over the site. In one single lift, it can lift the equivalent weight of 5,000 shire horses, or of two A380s. It is a remarkable piece of engineering. On 18 December, engineers at Hinkley worked through the night to lift a 170 tonne part of the reactor’s steel containment liner into place, and it was fantastic to see the results at first hand.

During its construction and operation, Hinkley Point C will provide the local region, as well as the entirety of the UK, with economic benefits. In July 2018, the Government published “Hinkley Point C: wider benefits realisation plan”. The plan, produced with support from EDF Energy, sets out how the wider benefits of the project will be delivered. For example, Hinkley Point C is expected to provide more than 25,000 new employment opportunities and up to 64% of the value of construction contracts to UK-registered companies.

During the previous Parliament, I met some of the people involved in the project. They told me that all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would benefit from those jobs. Can the Minister confirm that Northern Ireland will gain from the construction of the project?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am happy to write back to him on how much of the benefit has gone to businesses in Northern Ireland.

A total of almost £4 billion in today’s money will go into the regional economy over the lifetime of the project, composed of about £1.5 billion during construction and about £2.4 billion during operations.

Does the Minister agree that we should not only seek to replicate established technologies, but use the new nuclear base-load as an opportunity to innovate and become a world leader in the sector?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right and I hope to address that point in a few moments.

EDF has informed us that Wales is already benefiting from work at the project; more than 1,000 Welsh residents have worked on it so far. Twenty-one apprentices who were previously employed at Wylfa are now working at Hinkley Point C, and more than 100 Welsh companies are working on the project, with contracts totalling more than £150 million going their way. The project is also sourcing more than 200,000 tonnes of Welsh steel from Express Reinforcements in Neath and large components from Vessco Engineering in Bridgend. I hope those examples go some way to showing that this Government recognise and value the highly skilled nuclear workforce and established supply chain that Wales offers.

I understand, however, that talking about successes in Somerset does not diminish the disappointment that north Wales felt upon hearing about the suspension of Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn that we worked extremely hard during negotiations to find a deal that was right for everyone, with Government ready to contribute significant investment.

We were clear from the outset that any deal that was made would represent value for money, and be the right one for taxpayers and consumers. Ultimately, we were unable to reach such a deal and Hitachi took the commercial decision to suspend the project. However, the Wylfa site remains a potential location for new nuclear development, and Hitachi has stated that it is keen to discuss future options for the site with us, based on alternative funding models.

The Government are committed to looking at alternative funding models that could improve the value for money and reduce the cost of capital of new nuclear projects. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn correctly noted, we recently consulted on a regulated asset base funding model as a potential new option that could attract private sector capital at a lower cost to consumers. The consultation closed on 14 October 2019, and we are currently considering the feedback to inform the best approach to the financing of future nuclear projects.

Ynys Môn will always be the energy island, and this Government are proud of the expertise and skills that north Wales brings to the UK’s civil nuclear sector. In September 2019, we published the Government response to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report on the suspension of work on the Wylfa nuclear power station. We welcomed the report, and our response reiterated our recognition of Wales’s world-leading capability across the sector. I hope that we can continue to build on the great nuclear history that exists in north Wales.

In June 2018 we launched our landmark nuclear sector deal in Trawsfynydd. As my hon. Friend is aware, the nuclear sector deal comprises a package of measures to support the sector as we develop low-carbon nuclear power and continue to clean up our nuclear legacy. Worth £200 million, the deal is about Government and industry working in partnership to achieve significant cost reductions across the nuclear sector, and to ensure that it remains competitive with other low-carbon technologies.

The deal includes a number of commitments to ensure that the UK’s nuclear sector has a highly skilled and more diverse workforce. I recently signed the nuclear sector gender commitment as part of the Government’s commitment to the nuclear sector deal target of 40% women in nuclear by 2030—and I say that to someone who has clearly had a leadership position in Women2Win.

We believe that apprenticeships and higher education will be a key component in achieving this goal, and are working closely with industry and skills bodies through the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group to understand the skills requirements and potential challenges faced by the sector.

The Government also consider that new technologies, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble mentioned, could play an important role in supporting our economy and allowing the UK to continue to be a world leader in tackling climate change. That is why our £200 million nuclear sector deal includes millions for advanced nuclear technologies. We believe that both small and advanced modular reactors have significant potential to support a secure, affordable decarbonised energy system, alongside other low-carbon generation. That is why we have awarded £18 million to the low-cost nuclear challenge proposed by a Rolls-Royce-led small modular reactor consortium. The challenge aims to design a working model that could be deployed as early as 2030. The consortium believes that a UK SMR programme can support up to 40,000 jobs at its peak, with each SMR capable of powering 750,000 homes.

To support advanced modular reactor development, we have committed up to £40 million to research and development through our AMR competition, the outcome of which will be announced shortly. Additionally, we have committed up to £26 million for an advanced manufacturing and materials competition and up to £12 million to build regulatory capability, which is also important, to take future licensing decisions on small and advanced modular reactors in a safe way.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn once more for securing this important debate, and the Members who have made interventions. Nuclear can not only help us along the route to net zero by 2050, but is a key part of our economy. In 2018, there were around 89,000 people employed across the UK nuclear workforce and its supply chain. Our nuclear sector deal is looking to develop the skills that the sector needs and build a more diverse workforce. Hinkley Point C will kick-start new nuclear in the UK, providing firm base-load power and energy security for generations to come as we transition to a low-carbon economy. I look forward to working with all colleagues, and especially new ones, to ensure that we deliver for north Wales and support the energy island.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.