Energy Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:34 pm on 1 July 2009.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Energy and Climate Change 5:34, 1 July 2009

On managing the risk of proliferation, plans for various fuel banks—for example, those supported by the US, Russia, the EU and others—are well advanced, and the details of the UK’s nuclear fuel assurance to underpin existing enrichment contracts are also nearly final. With all those proposals, the purpose is to provide the confidence needed by new nuclear states not to seek to develop their own facilities. That will encourage the uptake in nuclear energy, because by avoiding expensive and unnecessary facilities, the cost will be less, and it will reduce proliferation risks.

I note that no potential new nuclear states have shown a desire to pursue reprocessing. They recognise that to do so would mean creating large, expensive, identifiable and commercially unnecessary facilities. For our own part, the Government have concluded that any new nuclear power stations that might be built in the UK should proceed on the basis that spent fuel will not be reprocessed and that plans for, and financing of, waste management should proceed on that basis. For existing reprocessing facilities, the policy is that the thermal oxide reprocessing plant will continue to operate until existing contracts have been completed or the plant is no longer economic. No firm proposals for new contracts have been received. If we receive any such proposals, their merits will be considered at that time.

What we do with existing stocks of plutonium is extremely topical, and certainly emotive. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been working on options for plutonium since 2005. It recently considered management options, published a plutonium options paper for comment in August last year, and finally published its options paper in January this year. The Government are now ready to take forward the process and to determine a long-term strategy for UK plutonium. We are considering the basis for public consultation on long-term plutonium management, and we hope to launch it later this year.

Clearly, another view that might be considered as an appropriate long-term solution for dealing with the plutonium stockpile is to ensure that it is manufactured into mixed oxide fuel, which would require a new MOX plant, and thereby consumed in nuclear reactors. The other main option, other than indefinite storage, is to treat the material as waste. That would mean immobilising the plutonium before its eventual disposal. Again, the issues are challenging as likely immobilisation techniques have yet to be demonstrated outside the laboratory. I heard my hon. Friend’s choice of those options, and his views will be received, welcomed and considered, along with our consideration of other options.

The Government launched the national nuclear laboratory on 23 July 2008. Its vision is for a successful centre of excellence serving primarily the needs of legacy nuclear waste clean-up. The laboratory will, of course, also play a key role as a world-class provider of science-based technology solutions and research services.

Managing increased levels of radioactive waste is a key area for discussion as we advance with the development of plans for new nuclear reactors. The interest expressed in a potential geological disposal facility by Copeland and Allerdale borough councils and Cumbria county council is encouraging, and demonstrates further that region’s commitment to the UK’s energy programme. The geological disposal facility is a potential multi-billion pound high-technology project that would provide skilled employment for decades.

This debate emphasises the need to take decisions that will be durable for decades. It will be about seven years from the moment a decision is taken before a new nuclear reactor can contribute to the country’s electricity supply, and it will be longer for countries without the appropriate physical infrastructure or regulatory or administrative frameworks for nuclear generating plant, but those reactors are likely to be producing power in 50 years. As I have outlined, we have the structures and procedures in place, internationally and nationally, to ensure that proliferation risks remain low. We will continue to develop those, working through all the means available, to ensure that that remains the case.

The next review conference of the non-proliferation treaty in May 2010 will be particularly important as a time to take stock of global intentions on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to help to refresh our global approach to non-proliferation. Nuclear energy has an important future, but we will remain vigilant to ensure that it remains in safe hands.