Energy Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 1 July 2009.

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Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland 4:44, 1 July 2009

This is an important debate. I am pleased that somebody with such a keen intellect as yours, Dr. McCrea, is presiding over it because it requires such a tenor of adjudication. I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he will bring his own brand of intellectual rigour, diligence and enthusiasm to the post, which he displayed as an able Back-Bench colleague.

The Minister and I have just left a debate on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. As constitutionally important as that Bill is, it is my conviction that the issues before us in this debate are more important than those being discussed in the main Chamber. The Minister holds an important post in what is perhaps the most important Department. There is no more important issue facing this country and the world than climate change. It is widely recognised by left-wing and right-wing Governments around the world that this country—and by definition this Government and this Department—is leading the international response to the threat of climate change.

Energy policy is the engine of our policy response in this field and is at the heart of the Government’s new industrial policy. Energy policy is one of the most pressing issues facing this country. Energy security and nuclear non-proliferation are at the centre of the issues we are discussing. I will outline the importance of energy security, the pressing requirement on us and other developed nations to formulate a solution to the threat of nuclear proliferation, the policy solutions that I believe the Government should pursue without delay, and the associated benefits of those solutions. We must recognise the reality of the situation and the opportunities presented by it.

The Sellafield nuclear facility in my constituency is the largest concentration of nuclear engineering skills, abilities and facilities in our country. The site is home to highly advanced facilities such as the Sellafield MOX plant—SMP—and the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, or THORP. It is also home to tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium oxide and more than 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide.

I should declare an interest in Sellafield. Although I have no direct financial interest, I am a former employee of the plant. Its importance to my constituency is such that I should declare about 17,000 individual interests.

The Government’s policy in this area is right and I believe that we should go much further. Put simply, THORP reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from the UK, Japan and other countries. Reprocessing results in the separation of the unused uranium and plutonium from a spent fuel rod, both of which are stored at Sellafield in oxide form, which is essentially a fine granulated powder.

Certain customers who send their spent fuel for reprocessing at THORP stipulate that the materials extracted from their spent fuel, which remain within their ownership, be returned to them as fuel that can be used in their reactors. Such fuel is mixed oxide fuel—MOX fuel—which is the combination of uranium and plutonium oxides into fuel pellets that are installed into fuel rods, a number of which can comprise a fuel assembly and be used again in a nuclear reactor. That fuel is manufactured at the adjoining Sellafield MOX plant, which was rightly approved by this Government. That is in keeping with the fact that every major pro-nuclear decision in this country’s history from Windscale onwards has been taken by a Labour Government.

There have been significant processing problems at SMP, which have caused Sellafield management, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the Government to assess the future of SMP for a number of years. That is not a new development. It is well known to the SMP work force and the wider community. Let me make my position clear: my constituents, this industry and our country cannot do without the services that SMP provides. It hosts a unique array of skilled workers with incredible technical, scientific and engineering competencies, which must not be lost to Sellafield or the nuclear industry in this country. Closing SMP without having a replacement facility simply is not an option. It has underperformed, but it will have a use until a new MOX plant is built at Sellafield.

If such a new facility were established, there would still be a role for SMP in immobilising the small quantities of plutonium that cannot be reused as fuel or fuel components. Fundamentally, there is strong market interest in bringing forward such a new facility, and there is a genuine desire for that from certain companies—they will be known to the Minister’s Department—which are prepared to invest their money to make that happen. I discuss these issues with them regularly, so I know they are genuinely excited about the possibilities before them, as corporate entities, the Sellafield work force and the country. Whatever SMP’s technical problems have been, the use of plutonium and uranium oxides to create fuel is unquestionably the right policy. There is no credible case for pursuing an alternative policy on environmental or economic grounds, on national interest or security grounds, or on the ground of effectively pursuing global non-proliferation policies.

It is beyond doubt that a new nuclear fleet in the UK would be central to securing our security of energy supply. Every reactor design being assessed by the nuclear installations inspectorate is capable of burning MOX fuel, and there is a huge and growing international marketplace for MOX fuel. Our policy response should therefore be obvious; indeed, it was recognised as such by the Prime Minister in his address to the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle conference in London in March, on the eve of the G20 conference. He is the only party leader who appears to understand these issues and their importance both to the country and to my constituents. He is also the only party leader to support nuclear development in the UK and in my constituency. I thank him for that, and for understanding and facilitating my constituents’ ambitions.

In his address, the Prime Minister acknowledged the need for a better, stronger International Atomic Energy Agency, and for the need to turn stockpiles of nuclear weapons into fuel for use in civilian nuclear power programmes. He said:

“Britain will be at the forefront of the international campaign to prevent nuclear proliferation and to accelerate multilateral nuclear disarmament.”

He went on to say that

“however we look at it we will not secure the supply of sustainable energy on which the future of our planet depends without a role for civil nuclear power. We simply cannot avoid the real and pressing challenge that presents, from the safety and security of fissile material to the handling of waste, a comprehensive multilateral strategy to allow nations safe and secure access to civil nuclear power is essential”.

Britain can fulfil its required role in those efforts only with Sellafield, THORP and SMP or a successor plant.

I repeat that the policy is sound. If that sounds remarkably like Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” programme, it is because it is. The expansion of civil nuclear power is clearly our best and most likely hope of effectively combating the problems associated with the proliferation of nuclear materials. In this country, there should also be utilisation, although not necessarily exclusively, of the closed fuel cycle, with the pursuit of new contracts for the thermal oxide reprocessing plant. Again, we know that the contracts are out there, and again, I know that the Government are sympathetically disposed towards them.

Other major policy implications rest on decisions relating to the use of plutonium in this country, and I must pay tribute to the Royal Society and its fellows for their consistent interest in this area and for their outstanding work. Many of their reflections and proposals run throughout this debate. The use of plutonium as a fuel component would necessarily mean that the vast majority of our stockpiled plutonium would be classified as an asset—a usable commodity of real value—rather than as a waste. The stockpile is currently classified as neither asset nor waste, but that position cannot hold, and I urge the Government to recognise the value of that asset as soon as possible. Indefinite storage—the current management route for much of our plutonium that has been produced by reprocessing fuel from British reactors and from the British weapons programme—is unacceptable for both the intermediate and the long term, and is incredibly expensive. In that state, those materials are a constant drain on public funds, yielding nothing, achieving nothing and doing nothing, but they could be earning the taxpayer billions of pounds, while helping to combat climate change.

It would be an absolute travesty if those materials were classified as waste. Current estimates put the cost of disposing of them at more than £3 billion, but again, that would yield nothing for the British taxpayer. It would represent spending without earning, and such a move would be entirely wrong in principle. As well as being both wasteful and expensive, those materials would have to be disposed of in a deep geological repository, which would materially affect discussions about that process that are already under way. However, that is the subject of another, lengthier and perhaps more contentious debate, to which I shall return. I cannot envisage any community, least of all my own, volunteering to dispose of those materials, given that real value, community benefit, environmental benefit and wealth could be generated from using them as a fuel source.

Let us be under no illusions. A decision to classify those materials as waste could jeopardise the establishment of a repository, undoubtedly leading to further public expense. Pursuing the policy route I have outlined would earn us billions, reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, increase the security of our energy supplies and help to solve non-proliferation issues. No other technological solution exists, and no other policy programme exists that could drive all those huge policy benefits and more.

It is essential to emphasise how that money could and should be used as a matter of principle, but particularly in the current national and global economic environment. After all, we live in straitened times. The billions that would be earned could and should be used to accelerate the decommissioning and remediation of the greatest hazards on the Sellafield site. The speed of progress in the work at Sellafield is limited by the availability of money and sufficient manpower. However, more public money is being spent at Sellafield now, by this Government, than at any time in history. The last time I checked, it was £1.3 billion a year, whereas the last time I worked there outside of Parliament it was in the region of £900 million a year. The better and best use of that money should, can and will be sought. I know that the work force are committed to doing that, and I am exceptionally grateful to them for all the work they do.

The policy I am suggesting includes a vision for Sellafield that means two new reactors being established on the site, powered by MOX fuel produced at a new facility on the site. That would not only lead to the socio-economic regeneration of my community, but would provide 6 per cent. of the UK’s base load electricity demand over 60 years. At the same time, it would solve our proliferation problems and, perhaps most importantly of all, would obviate the need to emit more than 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over that period.

Sellafield is predominantly funded by the public purse, and I am utterly opposed to spending cuts there. Talk such as the Conservative proposals to cut public spending by 10 per cent. is entirely ignorant. Sellafield could not stand such a cut, and nor could the community whom I represent. Ten per cent. of £1.3 billion is £130 million, which equates to almost half the local Sellafield wage bill. Also, such cuts would necessarily result in decommissioning taking longer, and the general rule of thumb is that the longer decommissioning takes, the worse the hazards become, as do the cost to the taxpayer and the environmental hazards. Nobody of integrity, knowledge or honesty could possibly hope to sell such a ridiculous proposal to my constituents and the Sellafield work force.

If the policy platform that I have suggested were pursued—I repeat that it is my sincere view that the Government are sympathetic towards it—the cost to the public of operating Sellafield could be significantly reduced and alleviated, while total expenditure could be increased and clean-up accelerated. We have to make money to spend money, and the Government’s industrial strategy is the real-world champion of that simple fact. Energy security, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, world leadership in nuclear non-proliferation, massive benefits to the taxpayer and my constituents, and the opportunity to earn billions of pounds for the UK are all there for the taking—let us get on with it.