Nuclear Power

Oral Answers to Questions — Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 5th July 2007.

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Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde 10:30 am, 5th July 2007

If he will make a statement on the future contribution he expects nuclear power to make to the production of electricity in the UK.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Nuclear power stations provide about 18 per cent. of the UK's electricity, but most of them are set to close over the next two decades. The only way in which to meet the dual challenge of climate change and security of supply is by ensuring as wide a choice of low carbon options as possible, which, in the Government's preliminary view, should include nuclear. We are currently consulting on that proposition.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

May I, too, add my words of welcome to the Secretary of State to his post and for the positive nature of his answer? However, welcome the consultation exercise is to those who produce most of the nation's nuclear fuel at Toshiba Westinghouse in my constituency, there is concern about what happens from 2008, when the results are made public. The Government said that, in 2008, they will announce a call for applications to justify new nuclear power stations. To give certainty to those companies that are now expressing genuine interest in investing in new nuclear facilities, will he undertake, as part of the response to the consultation exercise, to set out a clear set of milestones that map out the decision-making process from now on?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I know exactly where he is coming from on the issue. We have conducted a preliminary review of the role of nuclear. It is important in the current circumstances for a full and proper consultation to take place on the right way forward. I agree that it will be important for the industry—and all of us—to have a clear sense of the timetable. I hope to set it out later this year.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

I echo the sentiments of Mr. Jack because planning is crucial. I want to encourage my right hon. Friend to examine the educational provision for nuclear training because, as he and I know, there is currently little capacity for technical or academic competence in nuclear matters. To get it right, the institutions with competence in the subject need early advice and support to develop the courses that we need.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments and I agree with her about the importance of skills to the energy sector. Clearly, that is now a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, but I assure her and the House that we shall work closely with him on finding the right way forward.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and look forward to helping him and the Government do a better job in the new Department than they would do without the sage counsel of the Liberal Democrats.

My father was a nuclear physicist but he never convinced me of the case for nuclear power. What is the cost per kilowatt of nuclear power when decommissioning operations and the management of nuclear waste are taken into account?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

We have set out a range of information and details about all those matters in the recent consultation document and other publications. The document made it clear that, if there is to be new nuclear, the industry must meet the costs of decommissioning and waste management. There is no question of the taxpayer being involved.

I generally welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. We now have a star gazer as spokesman for the Liberal Democrats and that is a huge improvement on the usual navel gazing that we get from them.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

There remains considerable public concern about the storage of nuclear waste. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in establishing the scientific case that such storage is safe and secure? What further consultation is he carrying out with the public to reassure them that this can be done at a cost that is reasonable for the country?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. He will be aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently published a consultation document on precisely these issues. I have no doubt that they will also surface as we take forward the consultation on the nuclear document for which my Department has responsibility. All these issues have to be fully aired and addressed in the consultation exercise, and we should proceed only in the light of the information and the best evidence about what is in the best interests of our country for the long term.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

What importance does the Secretary of State attach to energy security, which he mentioned in his initial comments? In particular, will his Government firmly make the case that we need to be less reliant on oil and gas from Russia and Ukraine and on oil from the middle east?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

This is an enormously important issue to which we attach great significance. We need not only to take into account the threat of climate change but to make absolutely sure that future generations of people in this country have confidence in the security of our energy supply. There is an increasing role for renewables, and we will aggressively pursue that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fossil fuels; let us take gas as an example. Some people think that we can significantly increase the use of gas as a source of energy, but that would clearly expose us to energy security risks in the future, because it would have to be imported. These are important issues, but, for the moment, it is best to leave them to the consultation exercise that is now under way. I will ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members are kept fully informed of what is happening and of the events that are going to take place during the consultation.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

Replacement nuclear power will require considerable investment over a long period of time. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that investment will not be forthcoming if nuclear power is seen as a last resort? Should not we encourage investment by having a high carbon price that is sustainable through a new, revised and robust European emissions trading scheme?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Carbon pricing is an important ingredient in the mix, and we must take it into account. I also agree that it is a mistake—and, dare I say it, an abnegation of responsibility—for us to see nuclear power only as a last resort. That would be to pre-empt and pre-judge the issues and, in particular, would take no account of the important question of energy security that Mr. Field has just referred to.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State

May I welcome the Secretary of State and his entire ministerial team to their new positions? I particular welcome the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Malcolm Wicks to his post. The departmental photo gallery will show him to be the seventh Energy Minister of this Government, and also the ninth. May I ask the Secretary of State how many qualified staff at the nuclear installations inspectorate are specifically employed to oversee the licensing of reactor designs?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, because this is a crucial question. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that

"we have made the decision to continue with nuclear power".—[ Hansard, 4 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 955.]

How can the Secretary of State justify that bold assertion when potential investors are dismayed that very few people in the NII are allocated to the licensing process? We can see now that there will be delays in building new power stations because, right from the start, there will be a licensing bottleneck. Is it not true that the Government have not yet given the NII permission to start recruiting the extra staff that it needs even now?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I will look into those matters. We are making sensible contingency plans, particularly in the area of pre-licensing that the hon. Gentleman has just referred to. It is necessary to keep those wheels turning while the consultation on nuclear power is under way, but in no way, shape or form should that be seen as pre-empting the outcome of the consultation document. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government and the NII are taking sensible steps forward. The NII is ultimately the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Work and Pensions, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are keeping in close contact with it.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Following on from what my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas said, has the Secretary of State seen the recent report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, "Educating Engineers for the 21st century: the Industry View"? It reached one alarming conclusion:

"Over the next ten years the UK is facing an increasing shortage of high calibre engineering graduates entering industry".

Given that we are heading towards nuclear power as the one option that we are going to follow, what measures is he taking to ensure that we have nuclear engineers for the future? They need to commission, build and run those power plants. What effort is he making to ensure that we have that sort of engineer in 10 years' time?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

I welcome what my hon. Friend says and will repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. We have to address the skills base of the energy sector. That is primarily a responsibility for my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I will work closely with him and his new Department in ensuring that Britain has the engineers and technical experts we need if we decide to go down the nuclear route. I want to make one other point clear; it is the Government's preliminary view that companies should have the opportunity to invest in new nuclear, but that will be alongside a range of diverse energy supplies, including renewables and gas.