Clause 256 - Application to the territorial sea of requirement for nuclear site licence

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 20 June 2023.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 120 and 121.

Clauses 257 to 259 stand part.

Government amendments 124 to 126.

Government amendment 132.

Government amendments 127 to 129.

That schedule 20 be the Twentieth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and to be back here for day seven of this Bill Committee.

A geological disposal facility, or GDF, is a highly engineered facility capable of isolating and containing radioactive waste within multiple protective barriers deep underground, so that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface environment. It is vital to the successful decommissioning of the UK’s civil nuclear legacy and to our new-build nuclear programme, which will support the UK Government’s net zero ambitions and energy security strategy.

Clause 256 makes it clear that certain nuclear sites—including a GDF, once prescribed in regulations—located wholly or partly in or under the sea, and within the boundaries of the UK’s territorial sea, require a licence and are regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation. I want to make it clear that no part of a GDF will be in the sea itself, nor will radioactive waste be dumped in the sea—that is banned by international conventions, including the London convention and protocol. The process to find a site for a GDF is under way, so it is vital that we have a clear legal framework to ensure that such a site will be licensed and subject to oversight by the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

Given the Government’s plan for a quarter of electricity to be generated by nuclear by 2045, how much additional nuclear waste does the Minister predict? How much additional nuclear waste will be stored at the new geological disposal site, and what is the estimated cost of the new facility?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

The costings of any geological disposal facility will be presented to Parliament for scrutiny, but the process is under way to find a site that will be large enough to cope with any increase in waste from our civil nuclear fleet. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to learn that Finland has just opened, and is beginning to utilise, a new GDF. That is the model that we in the UK would like to follow.

Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Conservative, Workington

I hope the Minister is going to propose that the Committee visit the facility in Finland. Does he agree that it is unhelpful that our detractors cannot seem to distinguish between legacy waste from a number of programmes and waste from new nuclear establishments, for which we have well-established protocols?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Absolutely—I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I would be delighted to propose a trip to Finland for all Committee members, but it is not within my gift to organise such a trip. If anybody who is able to host us is listening, I would be keen to engage on that.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments regarding new nuclear waste. The excellent work being done in Sellafield—I know that is not in his constituency, but it is certainly in his part of the country—is an example to the world of how we regulate and dispose safely of nuclear waste that has been created. When we talk about a GDF, we are talking about new nuclear waste, which will come about as part of the exciting, new, world-leading and revolutionary investment in a civil nuclear fleet that the United Kingdom is engaged in right now. The north-west of England will be at the very heart of that.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

Will the Minister explain the process for looking for a new geological disposal site? Will consultants do it? Will it be desktop-based to start with, and then involve intrusive site investigations? Will people bid to have a site? How will the process work?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

That is a good question. In fact, I was just coming to the process. The GDF siting process is a consent-based approach that requires a willing community to be a partner in the project’s development. The siting process is already under way. Four areas have entered the process: three areas in Cumberland—in Copeland and Allerdale—and one in East Lindsey in Lincolnshire.

Government amendment 120 removes superfluous wording in new section 3A of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. A licensed disposal site, as defined for the purposes of the new section, is not a nuclear installation within the meaning given by section 26(1) of the Act, so does not need to be mentioned explicitly in subsection (3). The amendment therefore removes it from the clause to correct this error. Amendment 121 is consequential on amendment 120 and removes the unnecessary definition of a licensed disposal site from new section 3A of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965.

The UK’s nuclear decommissioning programme is accelerating as older nuclear sites approach the end of their life cycle. As the first major nuclear sites will reach their final stages of decommissioning in the 2030s, it is essential that our nuclear legal framework is fit for purpose, while continuing to ensure an absolute focus on safety and security as the key priority. The Nuclear Installations Act 1965, which provides such a framework for nuclear safety and nuclear third-party liability, was written before serious consideration was given to decommissioning.

Clause 257 will amend the procedures for exiting nuclear third-party liability. Currently, the 1965 Act has the effect of requiring nuclear sites to remain subject to nuclear third-party liability for longer than is required by internationally agreed standards. The clause implements an alternative route based on internationally agreed recommendations and will apply to nuclear installations in the process of being decommissioned. It adopts a simpler and equally safe route out of the NTPL regime for non-nuclear parts of the nuclear site, such as laboratories, workshops, offices, car parks and land.

Clause 257 changes procedures for ending nuclear licences and regulation by the Office for Nuclear Regulation. It will require the licensee to apply to the ONR to end the licence and will require the ONR to consult the Health and Safety Executive before accepting an application. The ONR will accept an application when it considers that all nuclear safety matters have been resolved. Once the licence has ended, the ONR’s regulation of the site will cease. HSE will pick up responsibility for regulating the health and safety of work activities, while the relevant environmental agency will continue to regulate environmental matters for years or even decades after the end of the nuclear licence.

The clause has the effect of removing a barrier to the on-site disposal of suitable low or very low-level radioactive waste and avoiding the unnecessary excavation and transport of this material. Demolition work results in the creation of large amounts of rubble and waste, a small percentage of which may be lightly contaminated with radioactivity. Excavating that material can create radioactive dust, which is a hazard for workers. Transporting waste to disposal facilities can have noise and traffic impacts for local residents.

The existing environmental legislation, which the clause does not modify, was developed with land remediation in mind. It allows the operator to apply to the relevant environmental agency for a permit to dispose of suitable low or very low-level radioactive waste on site. Applications are subject to robust analysis, and an environmental permit would be granted only if disposing of the waste on site would be a safer and more sustainable option than excavating it and transporting it to disposal facilities elsewhere.

Finally, the clause will allow operators to apply to the ONR to exclude those disposal facilities for nuclear waste that do not require a nuclear licence from the nuclear licensed site boundary. To be clear, the clause does not constitute a relaxation in the standards for public protection. It aligns with UK radiological protection law, international standards and UK Health Security Agency guidance.

Clause 258 will bring an international agreement on nuclear third-party liability into UK law. Its aim is to lower the financial and regulatory burden on low-risk radioactive waste disposal facilities. Sites that meet the criteria will be exempted from the requirement to make provision for third-party claims. Injuries or damages will instead be covered by ordinary civil law, which is robust, proportionate and established. The clause allows the Secretary of State to set out by regulation the conditions that must be met to be excluded from nuclear third-party liability under the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s criteria.

The clause includes limits for radioactivity concentration that disposal facilities must meet. Only facilities with sufficiently low concentrations of radioactivity and negligible nuclear risk will be exempted from the requirement to hold nuclear third-party liability. The measures will help to ensure that the UK has sufficient disposal facilities for low and very low-level waste as the decommissioning of the UK’s legacy facilities accelerates and new nuclear projects are developed.

Clause 259 gives effect to schedule 20, which amends the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 to enable UK accession to a second international nuclear third-party liability treaty called the convention on supplementary compensation for nuclear damage. Nuclear third-party liability regimes aim to ensure that victims of a nuclear incident have access to adequate compensation. They also support investor and supply chain confidence by channelling liability to the nuclear operator and placing limits on their liability. The UK already has a robust nuclear third-party liability regime, being party to the Paris and Brussels agreements. The schedule 20 amendments to the 1965 Act that enable UK accession to the CSC will enhance the existing UK regime. Accession to the CSC enhances several of the benefits of our current nuclear third-party liability regime.

Government amendments 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129 and 132 make minor and consequential changes to schedule 20 to ensure the accurate implementation of the CSC. They will ensure that, following accession to the CSC, the UK does not inadvertently close off routes to compensation for nuclear damage. That applies to countries and victims that are currently able to claim under our existing nuclear third-party liability regime. To establish that, they seek to remove unnecessary consequential amendments as a result of the further amendments tabled. The changes also ensure that victims from a non-nuclear CSC state can claim under the appropriate conventions.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Dr Huq. It is also a pleasure to hear the Minister rattle through the Government amendments at really high speed. As he identified, this part of the Bill is about civil nuclear sites. Among other things, it is about the repository that we do not have at the moment—in other words, we have not yet found a repository. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to tell us where we are in that search. Does he think the clauses take that process further forward? Or do they impede or lengthen that search?

I am sure the Minister recalls that, some while ago, his party indicated that no new nuclear development would be signed off and authorised until a repository had been located and established. Now, of course, two civil nuclear sites are under active development. Hinkley C is under active development—the reactor core is in place and connected works are under way. I visited the site a little while ago and it really is in a very advanced state, so we can anticipate that nuclear power will come on stream in, I guess, about 2026. I have been guessing that it will come on stream every year since 2017, but we hope that will happen.

Advance discussions and some initial site works have been done for Sizewell C. The reactor that is going in is essentially the twin of the Hinkley C reactor, and a lot of the site works are being replicated to speed up that process a bit. I have not visited Sizewell C yet because—rather like in the story I told a while ago about the underground cable—there is not a great to deal to see at the minute, but we can anticipate that we will have four new nuclear reactors onstream by the early 2030s. All that is taking place alongside a process for a nuclear repository—a final solution for the issue of long-term nuclear waste.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a real paradox here? Allegedly the site rate for Hinkley Point C already has built into it the decommissioning costs for the storage of nuclear waste at the end? We are told that the estimates for Sizewell C will include all the costs of decommissioning and disposal up front, but how can EDF properly allow for those costs when it does not even have the new geological disposal facility that it needs to access?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

The hon. Member makes a good point. I would think that it is very difficult under the present circumstances. I was about to talk about that briefly. On both those sites the question arises, as he alluded to, of what we do with the nuclear waste from their operation, and what plans are in place for their eventual decommissioning at the end of their lifetime. Having served on various Bill Committees with me, the hon. Member will recall that in a recent nuclear Bill the question was raised of ensuring that a reasonably accurate built-in planning arrangement for decommissioning would be in the programmes that are agreed for nuclear power plants. The plans both for decommissioning and for what happens to nuclear waste as we go along are rather important to get right, given that there is no geological repository either under way, unlike the new nuclear power stations, or finally identified.

We could say that the provisions apply to something that is not really there. It may be there in a little while, or it may not be there for quite a while. Meanwhile, the two nuclear power stations are getting under way and being build. We know that quite a lot of the nuclear waste that has arisen from activities around Sellafield is stored in ponds, which are open to the surface and are safe to the extent that the nuclear waste is firmly stored underwater and there is no risk of it spilling out, except if someone planted a bomb in the pond. The pond would then disperse its contents, but obviously a geological facility is proofed against that occurring. The question is about what sort of planning the new nuclear power stations are likely to undertake for the storage of nuclear waste during their operation, and for its storage and disposal when they are eventually decommissioned.

Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Conservative, Workington

May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman arranges a visit to Sizewell B to see exactly how we store new nuclear waste from relatively new facilities? Sizewell B was also under an obligation to deal with the cost of its waste in advance.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 9:45, 20 June 2023

I appreciate that Sizewell B is already storing nuclear waste, and I understand that it is doing so quite effectively, although I have not actually been to see it. Obviously, Sizewell B is the newest nuclear power station in the fleet, even though it is not that new. The storage of newer nuclear waste is pretty good and, as the hon. Member rightly points out, the amount of nuclear waste is much lower than in, say, the old Magnox reactors. The issue of the storage of nuclear waste is largely about legacy waste, not new waste, but that is not to say that a fair amount of both high-level and low-level nuclear waste will not arise in the operation of new power stations—Sizewell C and Hinkley C—and, as is clear in the amendments that the Bill makes to nuclear legislation, there is still an obligation, upon full decommissioning, to ensure that there is no hazard whatever on the site from any radiation. That is quite a high bar. I am sure that is something we would all support.

Do the planners and organisers of new power stations—Hinkley C and Sizewell C—plan for on-site storage over the next period and for forms of disposal upon decommissioning that are not geological disposal sites, as a contingency in the event that we still do not have a geological disposal site when those plants are up and running? Or do they rely on the idea that there might be a geological site coming along, although we do not quite know when? We think it might be in the not-too-distant future, but we have not quite got there yet.

As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun correctly points out, that creates quite a difficulty in planning contingency, when building a nuclear power station in the first instance, for decommissioning and the safe storage and disposal of waste nuclear material. I am not sure how that has been resolved in the protocols that have been agreed with the power stations that are under way at the moment, and nor am I exactly up to date with where we are on the geological disposal site. I think I am up to date to the extent that we have not actually found one yet and that, although we have offered favourable terms to several communities to host a nuclear geological disposal site, we have yet to receive support to get it under way.

It would help us to judge the clauses a little better to get a brief rundown of where we are in that process and what plans the Government have either to accelerate it or to determine it in the end, so that as we develop our new nuclear programme we can be reasonably certain that the protocols in place for disposal and decommissioning will be reliable in future. I would be grateful if the Minister would let the Committee know that information.

I have a query and concern of a rather different order about schedule 20. As the Minister said, schedule 20 is about accession to the convention on supplementary compensation for nuclear damage. That international convention, which eventually came into force in 2015, having been agreed, I think, in 1997, sets out the supplementary compensation for nuclear damage on an international tariff basis, so that there is consistency in how compensation is dealt with in the event of accidents or other problems at civil nuclear installations in different parts of the world. So far, so good—it is a good convention and it is important that we are part of it. Indeed, the schedule ensures that we are fully a part of that convention.

There is a bit of a puzzle here. The Government have inserted into the Nuclear Installations Act some proposed new subsections about

“further non-CSC-only claims to compensation” and have denominated all those claims, and how the provisions about them work, in euros. That is in the Bill. Proposed new subsection (3BA), for example, states that

“the appropriate authority may be required to satisfy them up to the equivalent in sterling of 1,500 million euros”.

Proposed new subsection (3BB) states:

“To the extent that further non-CSC-only claims for compensation are CSC claims, the appropriate authority may be required to satisfy them up to the equivalent in sterling of the aggregate of 700 million euros”.

Proposed new subsection (3BC) states:

“To the extent that further non-CSC-only claims for compensation are both special relevant claims and CSC claims, the appropriate authority may be required to satisfy them up to the equivalent in sterling of the aggregate of 1,500 million euros”.

I do not know whether this is the secret explanation for why the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, withdrew the Bill during its passage through the Lords—because he thought that this was a plot to move against Brexit—but it is a bit odd that compensation is denominated in euros, when of course the rate is variable and we would be in a position to vary claims according to the relationship of sterling to euros. In any event, this is an international convention. Perhaps there is a simple explanation, which I hope the Minister has in front of him, but we are signed up to an international convention, not a European convention.

It may be—I do not know—that these measures are a hangover from our membership of Euratom, which we of course de-acceded from at the time of Brexit. It be that if we were a party to Euratom, Euratom would take the place of national membership of the convention and therefore everything would be denominated in euros, but of course we are not now a member of Euratom—we are our own actor, as far as various conventions relating to nuclear safety and activity are concerned—yet we are still denominating things in euros.

While I do not wish to amend the Bill so that we do not denominate claims in euros—I am concerned that the Minister’s career may be in jeopardy if he does not do the job of creating instruments that get us out of being in thrall to the EU and euros—I gently point out that it looks a bit odd. Is there an intention at any stage to regularise that procedure?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

The hon. Member’s concern for my career is welcome, and I thank him for expressing it in such kind terms. However, I reassure him and every person in this room—and, indeed, anybody else who might be following the proceedings—that the Government are not secretly taking us into the eurozone through accession to the CSC. It is not an EU treaty. The reason that the sums involved are denominated in euros is simply that the moneys referred to in the treaties that we are currently signed up to—the Paris convention and the Brussels supplementary convention—are expressed in euros. This is just a continuation of the same process. The CSC is an international convention, and we are therefore using the same denominations as in those other conventions. I am sure the hon. Member will be relieved to hear that there is no secret plot. The CSC, of course, is under the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

So the Minister can state that all signatory countries to the CSC denominate their compensation in euros, just the same as we do.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I would think that those that are signatories to the Paris and Brussels conventions may. I am led to believe very strongly that it is not the case that all signatories denominate in euros, but we do, as a result of our current membership of the Paris and Brussels conventions.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

So we do not have to denominate these things in euros, because a number of signatories to the CSC do not, and presumably their membership of the CSC is not in jeopardy as a result. Presumably, we would have the opportunity not to use euro denomination, like those other members, but we nevertheless we do.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I feel that we may be going round in circles. The Paris convention is a base convention. That is why there is carry-over into the new convention that we are acceding to—the CSC—to maintain the denomination in euros. However, I would suggest that those who are seeking compensation do not really care in which denomination their compensation is paid as long as they receive it in the end for any damage that is caused. I think we have spent quite enough time debating the denomination in which people will receive compensation.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test spoke at length about GDFs. As I said, work is under way to find a GDF location. Four areas have answered the siting process—areas in Copeland, Allerdale and Theddlethorpe, which is in Lincolnshire. They have all formed community partnerships. The first geological and site sustainability investigations were concluded in those areas last year, so the process is under way. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, there is—certainly in parts—a great deal of support for the possible siting, due to the community benefits that will arise as a result of the location of a GDF facility.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the cost of the GDF. Estimates of the whole-life cost are about £20 billion to £53 billion, and the cost to the UK Government is about £10 billion to £27 billion. The large range is due to uncertainties about location. The cost will be spread out over 100-plus years, as I am sure Members would expect.

To touch on one of the other problems that the hon. Gentleman identified, current plans already account for legacy waste, which is far and away the majority of waste by volume, and 16 GW for new nuclear projects. Nuclear Waste Services, the developer of the GDF, is confident that it can meet the waste requirements of the up to 24 GW of new nuclear projects set out in the energy security strategy. It is already planning for two thirds of that—the 16 GW that I referred to—and is in the very early stages of a flexible and adaptable design process. I want once more to praise the work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and all those working at Sellafield and around the country to ensure that the current fleet is supported and that waste is disposed of safely.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 10:00, 20 June 2023

I hope that my comments about the fact that we do not yet have a community that has said it will support a geological waste facility does not necessarily mean that there is not support for the facility to be sited in various parts of the country. It is just that, as I understand it, no authority has actually said, “Yes, we’re happy to have this facility in our area and we wish to proceed with it.” I assume that that is a factor in the question I was trying to get at: when can we expect a geological facility to be timetabled, developed and finally established, and to what extent does that timeline cohere in the context of the nuclear power stations that we are presently commissioning and will bring online in the future?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for clarifying his earlier comments. As I said, we are at the beginning of the process of identifying a geological disposal facility. Surveys are under way. We are working with communities that have already expressed an interest and we will continue to do so as we move forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 256 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.