Brexit: Energy Security (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:10 pm on 6th June 2018.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 8:10 pm, 6th June 2018

My Lords, the effect of Brexit on nuclear energy will be critical for the United Kingdom. I declare my interests as an energy scientist and a consultant for a company, Tokamak Energy, which is progressing a private sector approach to fusion. I was formerly chief executive at the Met Office and learned something there about the unpredictability of weather, which is an important part of energy, as has already been mentioned.

As agreed this afternoon, and as endorsed by this report, it is essential for the UK to remain as a working state within Euratom, both for standard and regulatory activities but also in dealing with long-term nuclear issues. The UK is still a very significant nuclear country, both nationally and internationally, through its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also has bilateral arrangements, which we will discuss this evening. For example, the IAEA is a vital forum, with other north-western countries of Europe, for dealing with radioactive material that leaks into the sea and, to a smaller extent, the atmosphere. The UK must have high-level scientists who are well respected in order to ensure that these international negotiations are well conducted. It is very important that the UK should have enough nuclear scientists and engineers at the highest international level. It was encouraging to hear today from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that the Government will be maintaining and contributing to this programme with some money. I suspect it might need more than the £10 million he mentioned, but that will certainly be necessary for us to maintain this at a high level.

One issue we have already discussed today is the need for the Government to allow migration to the UK to enable the UK nuclear industry to expand as the Government intend. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently been discussing improved, more efficient methods of construction. Of course, one of the biggest construction projects in the UK at the moment is the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Interestingly, in order to speed up productivity, which my noble friend Lord Rooker described vividly, new techniques are being developed by a company we investigated. Some new methods are emerging from this, but it is extremely important to relate technology to the people in order to effect it.

The Government and the nuclear industry also need to have a big leadership role in defining the UK’s long-range strategy, working with Euratom and the IAEA. One of most long-term, most profound problems is dealing with radioactive waste. Maintaining its existing waste is a major expenditure for the UK, which has very advanced technology to deal with this. The question is what will happen as we continue to expand our nuclear energy, as other countries do, and what to do with this waste. This is an area where Euratom has had some innovative R&D in the past. The current idea, of course, is to put it in geological repositories, but in such a way that it could be extracted if some new technology emerges. This has been a Euratom programme for some years and it is very important that the UK is part of it.

In the long term, there may be a possibility of combining the extraction of nuclear waste and turning it into material that has a very much shorter reaction time, and to use the technology of fusion power. Developing fusion power is the main scientific and technology programme in Europe. It started in 1980, but in collaboration with major countries such as the USA, Japan, China, Russia and others. However, progress has been much slower than was envisaged when it started; the original prospect of electrical power is now not likely before 2040, as has been stated by Euratom and other organisations. This was discussed at a Royal Society meeting in March.

The UK’s contribution to this international programme comes through the Culham laboratory. What is interesting now is that the Government are putting their money into this international, very long-range programme. A whole new approach has in fact begun to emerge. This really came about through new ideas of plasma physics, from the Culham laboratory, and new computations. Most importantly, it came about because we can now have superconducting magnets at a considerably higher temperature—about 30k as opposed to 1k. This has led to the concept of a much smaller, modular fusion reactor that will deliver practical power by 2025: in other words, seven years from now.

This Tokamak project, amazingly, is funded by the private sector, including insurance companies, charities and private funding organisations, including a big company owned by a prominent member of the Conservatives. There was a press statement today, which I can refer noble Lords to, about the latest progress and how temperatures now, in this contained fusion, exceed the temperatures at the centre of the sun—15 million degrees. The International Atomic Energy Agency described this as the leading innovative idea in fusion worldwide. I very much hope that the UK’s influence in Euratom will continue and will ensure that innovative private sector contributions work at the same time and in collaboration with state-funded contributions.

We hope that fusion reactors will be providing this power but while the source of power is one thing, one of the most extraordinary possibilities that motivates much of the research is that, with the neutron flux in these smaller devices it will be possible to bombard and transform radioactive waste, which of course is developing all over the world. That could then decay in 100 years as opposed to lasting, in current plans, perhaps 10,000 years, which is hardly a sustainable policy. I hope that Euratom and the UK Government will encourage this and other private sector advanced fusion systems. We need great leadership across Europe.