Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 16th May 2012.

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Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative 7:42 pm, 16th May 2012

My Lords, I intend to talk only about energy policy. During the last Session, I was a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Our report, Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities, was published last November. The focus of our inquiry was not on the arguments for and against nuclear energy, but on whether or not the Government are doing enough to maintain and develop nuclear research and development -R&D-capabilities and the associated expertise to ensure that nuclear energy is a viable option for the future.

The report said:

"During our inquiry, we were struck by the extraordinary discrepancy between the view, on the one hand, of some senior government officials and the Secretary of State"- we were referring to the last Secretary of State-

"and on the other, those of independent experts from academia, industry, nuclear agencies, the regulator and the Government's own advisers. A fundamental change in the Government's approach to nuclear R&D is needed now to address the complacency which permeates their vision of how the UK's energy needs will be met in the future".

Those were strong words and they seem to have detonated like a nuclear explosion within DECC. The Government's response, accepting almost all our recommendations, appears to represent the fundamental change in approach to R&D that we demanded. It also acknowledges,

"that nuclear power stations have a vital part in our energy strategy".

It goes on to say:

"The UK civil nuclear industry is an important sector in the UK economy given its current, as well as potential, contribution to jobs, growth and high value exports".

That is a welcome change, but I remain acutely concerned about the Government's wider approach and I fear the growing possibility of an energy security crisis.

The energy Bill, we are told, is designed to provide investors with long-term certainty and incentives to invest in low carbon. Far too much emphasis is still placed, and money spent, on onshore wind farms, which at best can only provide a very small proportion of the energy needs of this country and make a minuscule contribution to the worldwide reduction of carbon emissions.

At the same time, the start of the nuclear programme is proceeding far too slowly, if it is proceeding at all. Were it not for the rapid growth of a competitive worldwide market in gas, as LNG facilities grow and shale gas exploitation develops, we would be in deep trouble. The experiments in carbon capture and storage seem unlikely to produce results that will make any contribution to our needs for a good many years. Nor can we rely on energy efficiency and conservation. Even the rather modest nuclear ambitions of Ministers are now under serious threat. RWE/E.ON has withdrawn from nuclear building in the UK. Both companies in the consortium have incurred losses of billions of euros and run out of money because of the decision of Chancellor Merkel to pull Germany out of the nuclear business. That represents a major setback as new owners are sought for the sites at Wylfa and Oldbury, possibly from China or Japan.

We are left with EDF Centrica. The French EDF may have to adjust its plans in the face of the new French President's pledge to cut the French nuclear programme by a third. Already, that company has, if the report in the Times on 7 May is correct, increased the price of its two planned reactors at Hinkley Point by 40% to £7 billion each. The Timesreport says:

"EDF energy will decide by the end of the year whether to proceed with the £14 billion plan, but experts said that the rising costs-and its parent company's deteriorating financial position-made this less likely".

Speculation has also mounted that Centrica will pull out of the joint venture. EDF energy has promised to complete the first Hinkley Point reactor by 2017, but the plan is already well behind schedule-though a pessimistic report in the Guardian has been denied. The company is quoted as saying:

"We remain committed to delivering the first new nuclear plants in the UK for 20 years at Hinkley Point. The decision depends on having the correct market framework that will allow an appropriate return on the massive investment required".

EDF is in a strong bargaining position and that places the responsibility for what happens next firmly on Ministers, who are faced with uncomfortable choices. We face the further uncertainty that the Government's plans have to jump EU hurdles and are dependent on the examination to be made of a draft Bill and the subsequent passage of a Bill that may be carried over into the next Session. It is absolutely crucial that the Government come forward very soon with a clear statement of policy and firm measures to provide the foundations on which the industry can build with confidence.

I have just a few more words about wind farms. In Wales, a very large expansion of onshore wind farms is going ahead on the back of the Welsh Assembly Government's TAN8 document, which sets out the location of wind farm concentrations in Wales. Already, there is great local anger about the concentration above Neath in the south. In mid-Wales, the local community is outraged by the planned concentrations in some of the most beautiful, unspoiled parts of Powys -concentrations that are to be joined by a network of pylons and cables and then carried down one of the most glorious valleys in Wales by a massive transmission line into and across Shropshire. Scottish Power is pressing ahead, eager to get its hands on the subsidies.

If I thought that this desecration of the natural environment would make a significant difference at a reasonable cost to meeting the nation's essential energy requirements or to saving the world from global warming damage, I might regretfully conclude that it was a necessary evil. I do not believe either of those things. It is an odd irony that the flooding of Welsh valleys to provide water for English cities provoked the understandable outrage of a previous generation. Now, however, a Welsh Assembly Government cheerfully give the go-ahead to this desecration in order that electricity should flow across the border to English cities. Greater benefits would be provided by turning off the multitude of lights that illuminate towns, villages and roads between midnight and dawn. I believe that one county council has already given a welcome lead in that direction; I hope that others will follow that example.