Electricity Generation (East Lothian)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 4th December 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 1:30 pm, 4th December 1996

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject, which is obviously very important to many people in my constituency. East Lothian is literally the powerhouse of Scotland. It has the capacity to generate almost half the electricity that the country needs, from power stations at Torness and Cockenzie. With the deep mine at Monktonhall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), who is in his place, and the opencast site in Blindwells, East Lothian people produce a significant amount of coal too.

There are limits to the amount of opencast activity that any area should have to put up with, and I shall be bringing a delegation to see the Minister next month to discuss the case for fairer and more effective planning controls over private opencast developments. Today, however, I want to concentrate on East Lothian's two power stations.

With capacity to generate 1,320 MW at Torness and 1,200 MW at Cockenzie, East Lothian can satisfy fully 42 per cent. of Scotland's peak winter demand of 5,962 MW. Torness employs 630 people and Cockenzie 240, so the industry is crucial to my constituency's economy.

I am obviously not happy about the fact that Scottish Power, and now Scottish Nuclear, have been privatised by the Tory Government, and I am particularly concerned about the irresponsible privatisation of the nuclear industry. Of all industries, the nuclear industry is uniquely sensitive, and should remain under public control and in public ownership.

The privatisation of Scottish Nuclear and Nuclear Electric was the biggest public rip-off of them all. All eight power stations, including the best and newest advanced gas-cooled reactor at Torness, were sold to private speculators for less than the cost of building just one of them—Sizewell B. It was a matter of, buy one power station cheap and get seven more free. Sadly, Torness is one of the freebie stations. It also happens to be one of the best. According to British Energy, Torness power station produced 0.9 TW hours in October—the highest output of all eight nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom.

Having bought Torness cheap, the board of British Energy wants to run it on the cheap, too. It has announced plans to cut the work force from 630 people to 550–80 job losses on a nuclear site where safety considerations must be paramount and undermanning could create risks. I should like to cite one example of such risks, which has been drawn to my attention by employees at Torness power station.

I understand that, ideally, teams of staff should be dedicated to each of the two reactors. That principle is already being breached by the penny-pinchers of British Energy. Towards the end of August, an operations engineer from reactor II was sent to do some work on reactor I, which was off load for refuelling. He received an instruction to shut the main steam isolator for the turbine, which he duly did, but, unfortunately, he shut the valve on reactor II, which was on load, instead of that on reactor I, which was shut down; so reactor II tripped, and it took a day to bring it back on load.

I offer that as one cautionary tale of the false economies of undermanning at such a power station. We shall have to be extremely vigilant now that the Government have given the nuclear generating industry to private owners. I use the term "given" deliberately, because that is what has happened to Torness.

I turn to the imminent Government decisions that will be crucial to the future of Cockenzie power station. As the smaller of Scottish Power's two main coal-burning stations, Cockenzie currently operates as a major standby generator, available to produce electricity if there is a problem at another station or for export to England and Wales.

Cockenzie is very good at that job. Its engineers can fire up their plant very quickly, and the costs are very competitive for that purpose. The plant is in good order, and Scottish Power intends to invest in further improvements. The station should have a secure future until 2010. Since Scottish coalfields produce low-sulphur coal, the environmental impact would be acceptable.

If Cockenzie could gain access to wider markets, its output would increase and its costs would become even more competitive. Conversely, if a predatory competitor in the electricity market were to dump cheap electricity on to the already over-supplied Scottish market, the future of Cockenzie power station and the jobs of 240 of my constituents would be in serious jeopardy. I ask the Minister to face up to the Government's responsibility on both those counts.

Scottish Power is striving to increase the capacity of the transmission system to make it possible to export electricity. There is 9,323 MW of generating capacity in Scotland, which is 1,870 MW more than what is required to cover our peak demand, plus a reasonable planning margin. As Scotland's standby station, Cockenzie could be seen as that spare capacity. Its average load factor last year was just 21.3 per cent., so Cockenzie must export if it is to survive. In financial terms, it is very competitive, so Scottish Power is able to export much electricity from Cockenzie to England and Wales through the recently upgraded cross-border interconnector.