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Hinkley Point C

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 15 September 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The Statement is as follows:

“As the House knows, on 28 July, following a decision by the board of EDF to approve the final investment decision of the £18 billion project to build a new nuclear power plant in Somerset, I announced that the Government would carefully consider all elements of the project before announcing whether the Government would enter into a contract with EDF, and that we would make a decision by the early autumn. I can announce today that the Government have decided to proceed with the first new nuclear power station for a generation. However, this decision is made with two important changes.

On the Hinkley project itself, the Government will now be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to the completion of construction. This agreement will be confirmed in an exchange of letters between the Government and EDF. Existing legal powers, and the new legal framework, will mean that the Government are able to intervene in the sale of EDF’s stake once Hinkley is operational. Furthermore, and even more importantly, we will reform the wider legal framework for future foreign investment in British critical infrastructure.

These reforms will have three elements. First, after Hinkley, the British Government will take a special share in all future nuclear new-build projects. This will ensure that significant stakes cannot be sold without the Government’s knowledge or consent. Secondly, the Office for Nuclear Regulation will be directed to require notice from developers or operators of nuclear sites of any change of ownership or part-ownership. This will allow the Government to advise or direct the ONR to take action to protect national security as a result of a change in ownership. Thirdly, the Government will significantly reform their approach to the ownership and control of critical infrastructure to ensure that the full implications of foreign ownership are scrutinised for the purposes of national security. This will include a review of the public interest regime in the Enterprise Act 2002 and the introduction of a cross-cutting national security requirement for continuing government approval of the ownership and control of critical infrastructure.

These changes will bring Britain’s policy framework for the ownership and control of critical infrastructure into line with other major economies. This will allow the UK Government to take a fair and consistent approach to the national security implications of all significant investments in critical infrastructure, including nuclear energy, in the future. The changes mean that, while the UK will remain one of the most open economies in the world, the public can be confident that foreign direct investment works in the country’s best interests.

The £18 billion investment in Britain provides an upgrade in our supply of clean energy. When it begins producing electricity in the middle of the next decade, it will provide 7% of the UK’s electricity needs, giving secure energy to 6 million homes for 60 years. Furthermore, it must be stressed that the contract negotiated places all the construction risk on the investors alone. Consumers will not pay a penny unless and until the plant generates electricity.

The proposed strike price of £92.50, reducing to £89.50 if Sizewell C is built, contains important elements of insurance against any cost overrun in construction and future high gas prices, which have historically been volatile. It compares broadly with the costs of other clean energy, whether offshore wind with additional costs of intermittency, or gas with carbon capture and storage.

Hinkley unleashes a long-overdue new wave of investment in nuclear engineering in the UK, creating 26,000 jobs and apprenticeships and providing a huge boost to the economy, not only in the south-west but in every part of the country through the supply chain of firms, big and small, that will benefit from the investment. EDF has also confirmed that UK businesses are set to secure 64% of the value of the £18 billion investment being made—the biggest single capital project in the UK today. But as it is the first of a wave of new nuclear plants, we expect the experience of rebooting the nuclear industry to mean that the cost should reduce for future new nuclear power stations, of which another five are proposed.

In any consideration of nuclear power, safety will always be the number one consideration. The construction of Hinkley Point C will be under the close scrutiny of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which is independent of the industry and of Ministers. The Office for Nuclear Regulation has the power necessary to halt construction or require amendments to any part of the plant if at any point it is not completely satisfied with the safety of any part of the reactor and its associated construction. Unlike in the past, the long-term decommissioning costs for the plant will be provided for explicitly as part of the funded decommissioning programme, at a level that has been assessed independently as prudent and conservative.

Any investment that provides significant electricity supplies for the next two generations of British people and businesses requires serious consideration. It was right that the new Government should have taken the time to consider all components of the project. Having reviewed the project, the Government are satisfied that the improved deal and the other changes announced today will, for the first time, remedy the weaknesses of the regime for foreign ownership of critical infrastructure.

It is important to get the right balance between welcoming foreign investment and ensuring that it serves the national interest. That is exactly what these changes will achieve. The investment will secure 7% of the UK’s electricity needs for 60 years, helping replace existing nuclear capacity, which is due to be decommissioned in the decade ahead. The electricity generated will be reliable and low carbon, and so completely compatible with our climate change obligations.

Hinkley Point C will inaugurate a new era of UK nuclear power, with UK-based businesses benefiting from almost two-thirds of the £18 billion value of the project, and 26,000 jobs and apprenticeships will be created. All of these developments are good for Britain. It is now right that we support this major upgrade, the first of many, to the infrastructure on which our future depends”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in your Lordships’ House today. I also thank her for contacting me this morning to let me know that she would be making this Statement.

I say at the outset that Labour supports the development of new nuclear power as part of the UK’s energy mix, to ensure the country’s energy security, to deliver thousands of high-skilled jobs across the country and to deliver clean energy in compliance with our legal obligations on meeting climate change targets. Labour has always been critical of the strike price being set at £92.50 per megawatt hour; we have called for a price in the mid-£80 per megawatt hour range.

Critically, this investment must be delivered on time and on budget—two features that all Governments seem to be unable to improve on. Being on time is critical, as old energy plant is phased out, leaving a vulnerable period in the nation’s security of supply in the 2020s. The Government’s Statement today makes no mention of amendments on this following the review. This side of the House has argued that any future delays, which have already added five years to the project at a cost of £6 billion, should result in a penalty clause with a taper being applied to the price. While we may all be second-guessing whether the deal will be a good one in relation to future energy pricing, the country’s need for a new low-carbon energy supply coming on stream is well documented. Any cost overruns should be recognised and welcomed as a cost to EDF, and any underruns are to be shared.

Although the price at £92.50 per megawatt hour may well reduce to £89.50 if Sizewell C is built, nevertheless this is above the price agreed in France for Flamanville. It can be stated with a certain amount of confidence that the technical issues around the developments in light water reactors will find innovative solutions. We do not have a particular issue with this.

The Government were right to subject Hinkley Point to review, but the review should have taken place far earlier than at the 11th hour, when the room for renegotiation and manoeuvre is severely limited. This deal will set a precedent and benchmark for the future. Key review dates should also be set along the way to ensure that this project delivers to plan. The quality mark of having received approval from the globally recognised gold standard of the ONR will be much prized.

I am also wondering why the Government are rushing the Statement out today, the last day of this September sitting, with three weeks’ interval before Parliament returns in October.

I learned that, last night, as energy supplies through solar came to an end around sunset, a price hike occurred with an interconnector to the continent also being unavailable pushing pricing up well over £120 per megawatt. Will the Minister ask Ofgem to monitor and investigate price volatility through the winter months to guard against any possibility of manipulation for whatever reason?

On the Statement, I have a few questions that I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify. The review has concluded with a few alterations around the issue of control. The Government will now be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to completion. This is being done via an exchange of letters. Will the Minister clarify what is the legal form or basis under which this agreement by exchange of letters is enforceable? What would the implications of non-compliance be? Will the letters be made public? I would be most grateful to understand better the legal context to this agreement.

After completion the Statement refers to the new legal framework under which the Government will be able to intervene in any sale of EDF’s stake. Can the Minister give any further indication what form this intervention may take and how? Will this intervention be limited to ownership issues only?

The Statement continues with reforms to future foreign investment in British critical infrastructure and highlights three elements: namely, a golden share; reports to the Office for Nuclear Regulation regarding changes in ownership; and new processes within government to scrutinise foreign ownership for national security reasons. In the context of comments made by Mrs May on her appointment as the new Prime Minister, the position of foreign control in takeovers of important British companies was identified as a key issue for the new Government. Given her position within the wider business department that now includes energy and climate change, can the Minister clarify what the next steps and milestones will be and whether this scrutiny will be limited to investment in critical infrastructure only? What will be the parliamentary oversight of these new powers?

Regarding future investments, can the Minister clarify whether the contract includes assurances and guarantees that Bradwell and other plants are committed to the same investors? Does this also include commitments that key personnel and skills will be available to British companies throughout the British economy? Can the Minister give precise terms and details of any link between this and any future investments?

On the wider issues regarding the Statement, why have the Government refused in this review to demand a better deal for bill payers, who will be funding this for decades—at a cost of up to £30 billion according to the National Audit Office?

This investment will result in 25,000 high-skilled jobs with possibly 550 apprenticeships, which should be widely welcomed. It is vital that this contract fulfils in delivering high-skilled jobs and key positions within the organisation for British companies. Will the Minister give the House assurances regarding the timetable and transparency over the contract to ensure job security as well as the security of energy supplies that this country so desperately needs?

I am grateful to the Minister for the Statement and look forward to receiving this vital further information.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister, but I have a different take on the pricing side. Some time ago, we had the resignation of the finance director of EDF. I have looked at the share price since the announcement was made, and it is going down. Does the Minister expect EDF to be solvent by the time this project is due to be delivered? That is a real risk, given the other problems at Flamanville and—I am not brave enough to pronounce the town in Finland—the Finnish nuclear station. Will EDF survive this? What are the contingency plans?

This decision was originally made some three years ago, and we have had this soap opera ever since, but time and technology have moved on. Given the assessments on smart grids, energy storage and the Government’s brave and correct interconnector plan, is this nuclear power station—and fleet of nuclear power stations—necessary? I for one am not against nuclear technology as such, but is this the right technology to go forward? The previous Minister in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for DECC, Amber Rudd, was very keen on small nuclear reactors. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is still pursuing that area.

I accept and welcome the various measures put in place to protect taxpayers and the public sector against the future costs of decommissioning, but I am concerned about the nuclear waste issue. I cannot see that there has been any movement by the Government in terms of their nuclear waste strategy or where we are going to put even old nuclear waste, let alone new nuclear waste. How can we be sure that the funding that will be put in place for decommissioning will reflect such an undefined nuclear waste strategy for the future?

Now that we have got through this period of constipation on energy decision-making, when can we expect a decision on the Swansea tidal lagoon?

I want to take up another major element in the Statement that is really interesting and that I have debated with the Minister on previous occasions. The Government are saying that they will take a golden share in future nuclear and other critical energy projects. The Minister will not be surprised if I ask her whether the Government have consulted with the Office for National Statistics about this strategy. She is quite right to be sensitive about the issue and wanting to make sure that, in having even slight government control over a company or a project, it does not become part of the public sector and go on to the public sector balance sheet. However, this seems quite incautious in comparison with previous government policy, and it is quite likely that at some point this project, which is worth £18 billion, will be put on to the public balance sheet. If that is the case, surely we should have put our own public money into it, at a more or less zero long-term interest rate, rather than bother with Chinese and French investment because it is going to be on the public sector balance sheet anyway.

I shall leave my questions at that. Again, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for his support. I agree that we do not want any further delays, although I take comfort from the fact that the costs are borne by the developer. Under the contract for difference, if the plant is not generating by 2029, the period in which the developer has increased price security will decrease and the Government have an option to cancel if it is not generating in good time.

I shall try to answer some of the noble Lord’s testing questions on the legalities. He asked about the legal basis of letters. Clearly, letters are not legally binding in the same way as the contract for difference, but they provide a clear political reassurance that we trust EDF will stick to. We have a mutual interest in this important project.

Perhaps I might go through the protections and thus respond both to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and to those of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. We will have a special share which would allow the special shareholder to intervene in any transaction where there were national grounds for doing so. That will not apply to Hinkley, which is being dealt with by an exchange of letters, but it will apply to future reactors. We have the Office for Nuclear Regulation which is a world-class, independent regulator that has a range of existing powers to intervene in developments. Under our proposals, we will require notice from developers or operators of any change of ownership or part-ownership. Most significantly, we will make proposals to establish a legal regime that allows us to consider the national security implications of all significant investment into our critical infrastructure, including nuclear. That will be the subject of widespread consultation on the details and will require legislation, so there will be opportunities to consider the proposals as we go forward.

For the Hinkley arrangement, we have tried to reach an agreement with EDF which—subject to its agreement to the project going forward—puts us in an improved position compared with where we were in July. That is what the Government have now decided, in part also because of the benefits in terms of security and reliability of supply. With a nuclear baseload—this will provide 7% of the UK’s energy needs—the advantage is that the energy continues to be produced whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

As has been said, 26,000 jobs is a lot. The £30 billion figure that was mentioned is an NAO construction which used a different discount rate of 0.7%, which is much lower than our own 3.5% and is equivalent to the top end of our projections, which of course I covered in the Statement.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, compared this proposal to the French situation. Perhaps he would like to know that the French figure is a regulated price for electricity generated by all the power stations; there is a mix of both new and old in the French nuclear fleet, so it is not just Flamanville. The British price is a CFD for a specific new-build project, and furthermore it reflects the fact that the construction risks in Hinkley are borne by the developer alone and not the British consumer. I very much agree that the ONR is well respected and we are lucky to have that body.

The noble Lord also asked why the Statement is being made today. I thought that noble Lords would welcome the fact that, having said that we would make an announcement in the early autumn and then that we would do so in September, we have been able to get to the line today, so that it is possible for us to have a short debate on this ahead of the Conference Recess.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in his inimitable way, made a lot of interesting points. I can confirm that we are looking at the small nuclear reactors he mentioned. He will recall that we are looking at an innovation competition in that area, with funding having been earmarked.

The noble Lord was right to say that the decommissioning of nuclear waste is an important issue, but he is wrong in that we do have a good system in this country. One of my earliest visits was to Sellafield, and I was impressed by the progress that is being made there. We are making a large public commitment—£2 billion at Sellafield alone—and of course we have built decommissioning into Hinkley, and we will do the same with the new nuclear fleet so that we do not get landed with a large legacy of decommissioning for which the public sector has to pick up the tab. However, a lot of good work is going on at Sellafield on nuclear waste from 30, 40 and 50 years ago, including defence waste as well as civil waste.

My Lords, my noble friend—for whom I have the highest regard, as she knows—will also know that I am in no way anti-nuclear. The Statement refers to the fact that this is the first new nuclear power station for a generation. The last one was Sizewell B, for which I authorised the public inquiry when I was the Secretary of State for Energy in 1982. Is she not also aware that every single independent energy expert of whatever stripe has said that this is a thoroughly lousy deal, for reasons which will not be affected in the slightest by the changes she announced in the Statement?

It is charming, in this post-Brexit era, to throw out a lifeline to EDF, which as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, pointed out, is on the verge of bankruptcy and has never built a power station of this kind. As he rightly pointed out, the company has two power stations under construction—one in France and the other in Finland—and both of them are hopelessly behind schedule and in deep, deep trouble. Can my noble friend give an assurance that, if this power station appears to be getting behind schedule and suffering the same sort of problems that are affecting Flamanville and the project in Finland, the Government will have no hesitation in ending this contract, whatever penalties there may be? I ask that because it is a lousy contract, and the sooner it is ended, the better.

While I agree with my noble friend about Sizewell B, which I had the pleasure of visiting during its construction phase all those years ago, I cannot agree with him on the general approach. For reasons that I have already explained, nuclear is a central part of our future and I have explained what would happen if the Hinkley power station is badly delayed. I do not believe it will be. We have learned from Flamanville and from the troubles in Finland. Our own chief scientist has given us reassurance on that. I have visited CGN myself. It is producing a nuclear power station in Taishan on similar technology, which is nearly ready for operation. We cannot afford to wait, because the existing fleet is coming offline. By 2030, except for Sizewell B—my noble friend’s legacy—we will not have any nuclear power stations, unless we invest now in a new nuclear fleet. This proposal is on the table and we have decided, having looked at all aspects, that it is right to proceed.

My Lords, I am not against nuclear at all, but the Minister has tried to say that this technology is proven and works, yet nothing I have heard in the Statement or in other noble Lords’ comments this afternoon indicates that that is the case. The Finland scheme is years out of date and is not finished. The last thing I read about the one at Cape Flamanville was that the French nuclear regulator had said it could not generate more than 60% of its planned output because the basic design of the welding inside the core, surrounded by concrete, was faulty. It looks as if that means the whole thing has to be broken apart and started again, if that is possible.

It is fine saying that we have learned from their mistakes, but how many more mistakes have yet to be uncovered? It seems to me pretty irresponsible for the Government to commit maybe in the end £16 billion of taxpayers’ money to a technology that is not proven when there are so many other technologies for generating electricity that are. I cannot think of any precedent—maybe the Minister can give me an example—of such profligacy with government funding apart from, of course, in the MoD. I leave them to one side.

I cannot agree with the noble Lord. In business you learn from mistakes and—I remember this well—from other people’s mistakes. As I have explained, EDF has learned from Flamanville and Finland, and CGN is already producing a reactor of this kind. The consortium is taking the construction risk. That is one reason why we believe this is a good approach.

My Lords, there is a curse on our country when we talk about civil nuclear power. I am old enough to have read the Eagle comic in 1954 and cut out a picture of Calder Hall, which was to provide the first civil electricity in the world. Indeed it did: we had a world lead. The story is tragic ever since. I hope we will not make a mistake of that magnitude this time.

I congratulate the Government on boosting the national security element in future civil nuclear procurement but, alluding to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I ask the Minister that the submissions her department receives on the small modular reactors be placed in the Library for the illumination of your Lordships. Before we go in for these huge concrete and steel water reactors, maybe the future lies in smaller, safer and cheaper.

I will certainly look at what we can do about transparency relating to small nuclear reactors. It is something that, as a new energy team, we are in the process of looking at, as I have already said. The noble Lord, as always, makes a good point about the need for testing this idea.

I did not answer the point from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on tidal lagoons. We will take a decision on the future role of tidal lagoons in the UK’s energy mix following the conclusions of an independent review being undertaken by Mr Hendry, the former MP.

Would my noble friend accept that this was an incredibly difficult decision and that there were huge risks whichever way the decision might have gone? Would she agree that the main risks of going ahead—although, as I said, there were huge risks in not going ahead—are not so much the Chinese security issue, which has received a lot of press, as the rocky financial state of EDF, which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly raised, and of its supplier, Areva; the untried design, which still has not been proven and still is not working; the possibility of further cost inflation in the construction; and the enormous delay? Having visited Flamanville, I have seen how extensive that is: it is six years behind time and three times over budget.

Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, again said, there are the new technology possibilities coming along by the time this produces electric current, as well as the possibility of falling renewable costs and the present possibility of very low oil and gas prices for years ahead. When I launched a programme in 1979 of nine new reactors—only one, Sizewell B, was ever built —it was the weak oil price that completely undermined the economics of the situation. That is the problem we face again today. Would my noble friend accept that it might have been wiser, faced with this Hobson’s choice, to at least have gone at it more sequentially and built just one reactor the same size as Flamanville to start with, and then see how matters developed from there, working with the Chinese and the French, not involving huge compensation and delay? One at a time might just have been a wiser course.

Finally, can we have a careful examination of how this decision ever came about and how my noble friends in the Government were confronted with it, so we are not caught out a second time?

I very much agree with my noble friend that we should learn from our experiences. That is something I always try to ensure we do in any area I am involved with. That obviously includes this. The honest truth is that this has been a difficult decision. That is one of the reasons why it was delayed, although we ended up with a decision in September, which was the most recent scheduled date.

My noble friend asks why there will be two reactors instead of one. There are two answers there. There are economies of scale. We have the skills and capability. The second point is that the consortium, led by EDF, came forward with a proposal for two reactors allowing for all of that and bringing many benefits that were weighed against the difficulties. We have made some changes, particularly relating to security protections, but we believe this project represents value for money for 7% of supplies of electricity over 60 years, of a sort that is a secure and reliable baseload, as they call it in the industry.

My Lords, can I cheer up my noble friend by welcoming this Statement on behalf of the people of Bridgwater, who have helped to ensure that Hinkley A and B have both provided loyal and continuous service over very many years to the nation? If there was to be a new nuclear power station, Hinkley is precisely the right place to put it. It is also a bit of a relief to everybody. My noble friend may know, and other noble Lords who have seen the pictures on television will know, that half the groundworks have already been done in anticipation of what they thought would be a favourable decision. It is a great relief that this has been decided.

I take seriously the points made by the two former Secretaries of State for Energy and by others. There are concerns about the experiences of the two power stations under construction. I hope that the advantage of coming third is that those lessons have all been learned. I hope the Government are fully satisfied in that respect. I do not think it is sufficient to say, “Well, it won’t be our cost if they’re not”, because the problems that would flow from it would be very substantial.

Something that is also very important indeed and is quite different from Hinkley A and B is that we never had cyberwarfare in the times of Hinkley A and B. That will become an ever-growing threat to critical national infrastructure. The need to ensure we protect the critical national infrastructure is enormously important.

As it is, I say to my noble friend that what is now happening is the relaunch of British involvement in the nuclear industry. I welcome the fact there is to be a nuclear college in Bridgwater for the training of nuclear engineers and apprenticeships. Now at last we will see a real chance to rebuild the position we used to have in the nuclear world and which, sadly, we have seriously lost.

I have only one other criticism. When we go back into the nuclear business, one comment in the Statement was that it will put out electricity for 60 years. That will certainly be a great improvement on the length of time that Hinkley Point A and Hinkley Point B managed. Is that a realistic assessment?

I am grateful to my noble friend for his support. I completely agree: this is a good deal for Britain and especially for our nuclear industry, which used to be world-leading and could be again. It is also excellent news for the south-west. I talked this morning to the local MPs and the local council. They are very pleased. They had the sword of Damocles of a loss of a very important project to that area hanging over them and are delighted by the news today.

I agree with my noble friend about the college. It is extremely good that, with the help of EDF, we were able to set up a facility for training in the nuclear industry. That can be of merit right across the UK.

Cyberwarfare is a new reality. It was obviously one thing we took into account in looking at all the different components of this deal. We strengthened the security protections and of course we have a civil nuclear police, who I am looking forward to meeting and talking to shortly in my capacity as the new Energy Minister.

My Lords, I am strongly in favour of the development of nuclear power but the Statement says that the changes made will allow the UK Government to take a fair and consistent approach to the national security implications of all significant investments in critical infrastructure, including nuclear energy, in the future. How far have the critical issues been addressed as far as this project is concerned? My noble friend gave assurances about the future; we are interested about whether the Government are absolutely satisfied about the security implications here.

On the point raised by so many about the construction risks, it may be true that consumers will not pay a penny unless and until the plant generates electricity but, if the plant is not constructed, the losses incurred because we do not have a working nuclear plant will be just as important as the financial ones.

As I explained in the Statement, on the Hinkley project we will, following the changes to the deal, have a veto over change of ownership. The project will also be subject to what everybody agrees is the world-class oversight of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which can intervene in development, construction and operations, and amend site licences, among other things. That is a very important control. Then we will consult on proposals to establish a legal regime that allows us to consider national security implications in all significant investments in critical infrastructure. Once that becomes law it will apply to major infrastructure in the UK.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that there is a certain irony that after the nation voted to take more control of its own affairs we are asking two foreign Governments to take control of 7% of our future energy requirements? In particular, what actual transfer of risk is happening here, which presumably justifies the very high price that consumers will have to pay for this energy? Is there really a transfer of risk given that this technology is untried? No one has been able to make it work. What is plan B if it turns out that this thing does not work, to maintain energy security for our country? Finally, I very much welcome the emphasis placed on the importance of security and so on, but does the Statement not rather reek of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?

As I explained, the risk of construction falls on the consortium. We have a deal at a pre-agreed strike price which will produce a supply of electricity over an estimated 60 years. Everyone in this House this afternoon seems to take too gloomy a view of the prospects of building this facility. We looked at this very carefully over a number of months. Our Chief Scientific Adviser gave us reassurances that learnings have been taken from other nuclear facilities. However, the consumer does not pay a penny until Hinkley generates electricity. The risks are borne by the developer.