Nuclear Power

Oral Answers to Questions — Trade and Industry – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 27th January 2005.

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Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde 11:30 am, 27th January 2005

If she will make a statement on the future of the UK nuclear power industry.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Energy & e-Commerce), Department of Trade and Industry

Existing nuclear power stations are expected to continue in operation for some years, with Sizewell operating up to the 2030s. Our policy on possible new nuclear power stations was set out in the 2003 energy White Paper. There are no current plans for new build, but we do not rule out that option in the future.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Today, I had the pleasure of receiving a delegation from the Chinese environmental protection committee. Its members told me that China is about to double its commitment to nuclear power. A recent MORI poll confirms that the public now favour the generation of more nuclear power because they recognise its contribution to reducing CO 2 emissions. Given that the Minister confirms that the option will be kept open, will he ask the nuclear installations inspectorate to commence a design review of candidate designs to cut down the lead time if the industry can provide funding and investment to build a new generation to replace power stations that are being taken out of use?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Energy & e-Commerce), Department of Trade and Industry

The right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in those issues, given that Springfield is in his constituency. It does a good job and has an excellent safety record. However, the time scales for developing a nuclear power station are long. We are currently keeping open the options for possible nuclear development at some time in the future if the position changes, but it is currently economically unattractive. No private sector business organisations are making such propositions. We continue to watch the operation of the market but I repeat that the proposition is economically unattractive.

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

Will my hon. Friend please visit Culham and look at the next generation of nuclear energy producers? Will he acknowledge that, to have an option, we must have the ability to produce nuclear energy? Some in the industry fear that, unless we stop the slide, the critical mass in the British nuclear sector will be unable to develop, design or build any future generation of nuclear power stations.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Energy & e-Commerce), Department of Trade and Industry

We are making efforts to ensure that we keep the skills that are needed if we decide to build in future. It is currently economically unattractive to do that: nobody is presenting propositions for building a nuclear power station. The decision does not need to be made immediately. If we reconsidered the matter, we would want to produce a White Paper and hold a broad-based consultation and discussion before making a decision. It is not a foregone conclusion that new build is necessary. Progress is being made on gas and renewables and energy efficiency, which are currently our priorities.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Scottish National Party, Angus

The Minister said that new nuclear power stations were currently uneconomic. Is he aware of the huge concern in Scotland that the crazy transmission price regime that the zealots of Ofgem pursue will undermine the economics of new renewable build in northern Scotland? Does the Government's support for that regime imply that they intend to support new nuclear power stations in future?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Energy & e-Commerce), Department of Trade and Industry

The hon. Gentleman stretches the question to try to include matters that are important in Scotland—matters that we are considering with a great deal of care. Ofgem is examining how connections between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom are developing. We believe that, in future, whatever the regime, Scotland will produce an enormous amount of energy for the whole UK. The link between Scotland and the rest of the UK is the key to Scotland's future prosperity.

Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South

Keeping the nuclear option open is welcome but there is a problem with retaining skills and attracting graduates to the nuclear industry. That is worrying. Nuclear waste is also a major issue. Will my hon. Friend give a commitment today that, if the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—seeks an extension of report-back time on the solutions for nuclear waste, he will resist it?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Energy & e-Commerce), Department of Trade and Industry

We set up CoRWM and are awaiting its report. We want to ensure that the report deals effectively with the issues that it is considering, and it is important to respond to any requests with the due consideration that it deserves. CoRWM has a complex and difficult task to undertake and we want it to be done fully and properly.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

With respect to the Minister, his view that the Government are maintaining skills in nuclear engineering is not shared by engineering departments at universities, where they are running things down continually. There is no doubt in my mind or that of many others that we will need nuclear power stations one day and the skill to build them will not exist. We cannot continue to rely on wind power or our indigenous resources. For example, we cannot rely on coal—the last coal mine in Northumberland is going to be closed down.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Minister of State (Energy & e-Commerce), Department of Trade and Industry

We are making efforts to improve the skills base in the nuclear industry. We are working with the private sector as well as engaging with the trade unions to ensure that we preserve the skills that would be essential if we were to take the option of nuclear new build in the future. We will preserve those skills to ensure that the industry—which has quite a long life ahead of it, with Sizewell lasting until 2030—will be able to provide part of our diverse energy supplies. We are looking at the future, keeping the options open and trying to ensure that those skills will be there, should we need them.