Energy Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:20 pm on 1 July 2009.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Energy and Climate Change 5:20, 1 July 2009

My hon. Friend said how Britain led the world on nuclear power and I agree that, in Calder Hall, we had the first large-scale electricity producing nuclear reactor not only in the UK, but in the world. The site was also the location for the Windscale advanced gas-cooled reactor, the forerunner of the designs that currently form the majority of this country’s nuclear power generating capacity. Sellafield was also at the leading edge of nuclear fuel development and reprocessing, with a long and distinguished history of utilising state-of-the-art science and technologies.

We recognise that the redundant facilities on the site now form a substantial legacy of plant and equipment that will need to be decommissioned—that is, cleaned of all radioactive material and safely demolished. That work will last many decades and will secure work at the Sellafield site for many workers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As a Government, we are committed to the belief that the Sellafield site is home to our nuclear skills, our nuclear expertise and many of our key facilities. As such, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has nominated a site adjacent to Sellafield as one of three potential sites in west Cumbria to be considered for new nuclear build. The NDA has started the sale process for the land on the Sellafield site and has called for expressions of interest from parties that may wish to invest in new nuclear in this historic region known as the energy coast. During construction, each new station built in the area could bring as many as 9,000 additional jobs. Once operational, up to 1,000 skilled long-term jobs will be created. That could be worth about £2 billion to the surrounding region and wider economy.

Meeting future energy needs will be increasingly difficult, especially given our commitment to reducing the damaging effects of greenhouse gases associated with the use of fossil fuels. In that context, nuclear energy is enjoying something of a renaissance, but we must take full responsibility to ensure that, in taking advantage of all that nuclear energy has to offer, both in the UK and worldwide, the risks of proliferation of nuclear material for non-peaceful purposes remain low.

The first part of my hon. Friend’s speech was about security of supply. The statistics on UK energy supply show the extent of the challenge. Nearly a quarter of our current electricity generating capacity—around 18 GW—could close over the next decade, as coal and oil generation become subject to increasingly stringent environmental standards and nuclear power stations reach the end of their scheduled lifetimes. Some of our existing coal-fired and oil-fired plants can be expected to close by 2016, because of the application of the large combustion plants directive. A further proposed EU directive on industrial emissions may well also have an impact on plant closures around 2020.

At the same time, our indigenous energy—oil and gas from the UK continental shelf—is in decline. New investment in gas pipelines from continental neighbours, plus the development of liquefied natural gas terminals, is encouraging, but it means that we will be increasingly dependent on external supplies of those fossil fuels. Major investment is also under way in gas storage, and significant new electricity generation capacity is already being delivered. The amount of renewable electricity generation has risen to 5 per cent. since 2001, and the UK is now the leading country in the world for offshore wind. Our supply of renewable energy from wind is still expanding rapidly, and that is a sensible development, given that the UK enjoys 40 per cent. of Europe’s wind. However, the supply is intermittent and, in order to meet our energy needs and carbon emissions targets, we will need to decarbonise our electricity generation system more or less completely. We will need all the technologies at our disposal, including carbon capture and storage technology, and efficient gas storage.

We will need nuclear power to be able to play a full role, too, and we are taking steps to facilitate private sector investment. Nuclear has been a vital and low-carbon part of the UK’s energy mix for the past five decades and that can continue in future. We have seen significant investment in the UK since “A White Paper on Nuclear Power” was published last year.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s speech was about the impact on non-proliferation. Of course, many will argue that there is an increased threat of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands should we, or others around the world, increase our reliance on nuclear energy. However, it is not axiomatic that more nuclear power stations mean greater threats. A nuclear reactor per se is relatively straightforward to safeguard: nuclear material is in discrete items—the fuel elements—and the reactor core can be sealed while the reactor is operated and monitored remotely. Enrichment and reprocessing are the most proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, an increased demand for enriched fuel can be met largely from expansion of existing facilities—one facility can serve numerous reactors—and there are precedents emerging for the transfer of enrichment technology under “black box” conditions, such that the fundamental know-how remains with the originator. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, that have announced plans to proceed with a new nuclear programme, have publicly stated their intention not to build fuel cycle facilities, but to rely on others.

Even where enrichment plants are built, they will be subject to safeguards—measures to account for and verify stocks of nuclear material. The UK actively supports the IAEA in its work to develop safeguarding techniques and to train inspectors in a dedicated safeguards support programme. The UK is a key player in the global debate on multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. A number of potential ways to provide assurance of nuclear fuel supplies in the event of interruption due to non-commercial or political reasons have emerged from the international discussions.