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David Heathcoat-Amory says Britain must embrace nuclear energy

David Heathcoat-Amory MP Yesterday saw Wells MP David Heathcoat Amory introduced a debate in Westminster Hall, on the subject of nuclear energy. Herewith some extracts from his speech:

"Due to a combination of short-sightedness and wishful thinking, this country faces a looming energy gap between future demand and supply, because we have been decommissioning our nuclear power stations without replacing them. Many stations have already been decommissioned, and the rest will largely disappear in the next 10 years. Coal has also declined in importance: many coal-burning stations are increasingly obsolete and will fall victim to the tightening regulatory system, particularly the EU large combustion plant directive, which will take them out of service. So far, the difference has largely been made up by burning more gas. Incidentally, the so-called dash for gas was largely the reason why the Government were able to claim that they had complied with the Kyoto commitment on carbon dioxide stabilisation. That happened anyway, because gas produces less carbon dioxide per unit than does coal, and was nothing to do with what the Government had done elsewhere.

The massive switch to gas burn cannot continue for ever, and is becoming expensive. There were significant price rises last year, which have not been fully reversed, and which created a lot of grief both domestically and industrially. Also, gas reserves around our shores are declining—it is not just North sea oil that is running out—and we are having to import more and more gas. Indeed, we will soon be overwhelmingly dependent on imported gas from countries that, by and large, are unstable, unfriendly, or both. Many of those gas-exporting countries clearly use their energy exports as a foreign policy tool. Russia is a good example of that. Europe, as a whole, is very dependent on Russian gas, but those supplies are interruptable, and this country is at the end of the pipeline.


The Government are relying on another source of energy that is based largely on make-believe—a vast expansion in renewables. We are now committed to deriving 15 per cent. of all our energy requirements—not just electricity—from renewable sources by 2020, but we currently derive only about 2 per cent., and we are nowhere near getting to 15 per cent. within that time scale. That commitment is legally binding and will be in treaty law. We know that EU law is superior to national law, but I do not know who will go to prison when these commitments are not fulfilled—it will probably be another lot of Ministers in the future. Today’s Government are signing up to a specific, legally binding commitment that is not attainable.

Some renewable technologies make sense, such as hydro and, possibly, tidal power, but the rest are usually small-scale and expensive. The Government are relying strongly on wind power. The Secretary of State has said that those who oppose having wind turbines where they live are antisocial—like people who do not wear a seat belt. Those who have to live next to such noisy, expensive and unreliable machines are being made to feel socially inferior. That is not a clever way in which to proceed. Wind turbines are also expensive and increase electricity prices for everyone else. They create fuel poverty and make industry pay more for its power costs. At the same time as we are industrialising the landscape, we are de-industrialising the rest of the economy. That is not a clever policy and it is certainly not one on which we can rely for many future years.

I want this debate to be about solutions, not just problems, blame and complaints. The solution both for energy security and the reduction of CO2 emissions is to replace those nuclear stations, advance further and expand civil nuclear power in this country. We used to be a world leader in nuclear. We were the first country successfully to harness atoms for peace and to turn nuclear fission into a technology for the benefit of mankind. We led the world. The story is not altogether a happy one, and I am not starry-eyed about the nuclear industry. Mistakes were made and certain expectations were not fulfilled. However, by and large, it was a British success story. It is true that we were too slow to switch to water-cooled reactors—the French did that successfully before us, and all credit to them. We also never hit on a standard design of reactor to replicate and therefore we did not benefit from the successive production of a single reactor type. Despite that, our recently built reactors have largely performed well and safely.


The inescapable point is that we are in a weak position now because of a policy of neglect. One of the decisions made by the Government was, indeed, to sell off Westinghouse—our last remaining consortium capable of designing and building a nuclear reactor—to Toshiba. We now hear that the Government are selling off the commercial arm of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Again, that is for all the wrong reasons and is to plug another gap—this time in the national finances. We are not in a position to take a lead anymore, even if we wanted to.

The Government apparently want eight new reactors in this country. They will now all be built by foreign consortiums—probably Electricité de France and Westinghouse. We are in a long queue now because the rest of the world also wants nuclear power. The population of the world is rising rapidly and will increase to at least 9 billion before the end of the century. Energy demand in developing countries is rising even faster, and the electricity component of that is rising fastest of all. The only hope of meeting that demand without having an enormous increase in CO2 emissions is nuclear power. Worldwide, about 40 nuclear stations are under construction and over 100 more are in the planning phase. We could have led this revolution and done so much for our manufacturing base and engineering skills. Instead of that, we are now an also-ran. We are clowns, spectators, supplicants. It is a very sad story.


In operation, nuclear power is virtually CO2 free. Of course, the reactors have to be built, and that absorbs a lot of energy, but exactly the same thing is true for every other power station. In operation, nuclear power is a highly effective, low-carbon source of power.

None of that makes nuclear power easy. As I said, I have no illusions about the problems. In the past, certain expectations were not met. It is a demanding technology, project management of the sites is complex, and the industry has not always been good at explaining itself. We have to be open with people and engage them in debate about the costs and problems, as well as the benefits, of nuclear energy.


My main point is that there is a contrast between the rigid, legal, binding commitments on CO2 reduction, and the vague, uncommitted way in which the Government speak about energy production.


I have confidence that my party will take forward these policies, and I hope that we will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells that he is not anti-nuclear, that he sees the importance of what I am saying and that we will do something about it. It will be difficult and urgent, precisely because of the failures of policy that are only too clear from the succession of White Papers, all of which are on the record.

I believe that the private sector must finance, build and operate the reactors, but the framework is inescapably the responsibility of the Government, who regulate, approve and tax the industry. They are responsible for the planning system and for setting the environmental policies to which I have already referred. They are inextricably part of the nuclear programme, and that is where they have failed.


Finally, what part is this country playing in the design of the next generation of nuclear reactors? Another mistake that the Government made was to withdraw from active membership of the Generation IV International Forum. That was certainly a mistake because new reactor designs can make better use of existing fuel. They can burn plutonium—indeed, even from warheads. They can operate reactors at higher temperatures and thereby produce hydrogen as well as electricity, and they can be more proliferation-resistant. This country must be part of developing that dynamic technology."

Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Greg Clark also spoke:

"It is clear from the contributions that have been made that we face a parlous energy security situation in the years ahead, and three factors contribute to that. First, there is the predictable decline in North sea oil and gas output. Some estimate that we will be 80 per cent. dependent on gas imports by the end of the decade, which could have been foreseen many years ago, in the past decade. Secondly, we are likely to have to decommission nine of our most polluting coal-fired power stations by 2015. Finally, six of our 10 nuclear power stations are likely to reach the end of their life, unless it is extended, by 2018. Over the years ahead, therefore, we face a significant capacity problem in generating our future energy supplies.

In 1912, Sir Winston Churchill said that security in oil depends on diversity and diversity alone, which extends to our discussion of energy today, because we need a diverse energy supply. Unless one has an objection in principle to nuclear on the grounds of safety, and my party does not, it is clear that the technology makes a low-carbon contribution to diversity of supply. Providing that it is economically viable and does not present a charge on the taxpayer, therefore, it will be one of our diverse sources of energy going forward.

There is agreement that we need to be clear about such issues, because we are contemplating major investments. Providing that Government subsidy is not involved in construction, operation, decommissioning or the storage of waste, no regulatory obstacles should be put in place.


The history is that nuclear power has left the taxpayer with liabilities. Some years ago, I was a special adviser in the Department of Trade and Industry and I well recall the sale of British Energy. That sale was partly designed to take liabilities off the public balance sheet, but I was there when officials came to tell the Secretary of State that it was not possible and that those liabilities had to remain in the public sector. The arrangements going forward therefore need to be absolutely rigorous so that there is no chance the taxpayer will face an unfunded liability.


Yesterday, we had the announcement of the prospective sale of UKAEA Ltd, which raises similar issues. I have no problem in principle with a private company operating the contracts, but UKAEA Ltd will have the long-term contract for decommissioning nuclear power stations. How can we be satisfied that a delegation from a private company will not come to the Minister some years down the line, when the contract is with that company and work has proceeded, to demand more money than was provided for in the contract to finish the job? We need satisfaction on such issues.

It is the Government’s responsibility to remove excessive regulatory risk. There is enough risk involved in making major multibillion pound investments—not least the cost of capital and the anticipation of future energy prices and the cost of carbon. Public policy should not amplify those risks, but most people in the industry would say that the 10-year delay that we have seen and the inconsistency of energy policy—indeed, the lack of a credible policy—have amplified them. That is not the way forward if we want to take up our traditional role in the energy sector as a world leader in nuclear technology.

On planning issues, it is important that the Conservative party supports the type approvals used by the nuclear installations inspectorate, because they allow safety standards, which are obviously crucial, to be applied consistently. On planning applications, it is important that there is genuine scrutiny, but not a review of national energy policy lasting for years on end for each application. The Government’s role in ensuring that we have a long-term safe storage capability is also important.

We have suffered the consequences of policy ambiguity and indecision on this issue, and there is no better example of that than the Isle of Anglesey. Anglesey Aluminium Metals Ltd is contemplating 500 job cuts—those are important jobs—because any prospective decision on a second Wylfa nuclear power station will come too late to avoid interrupting the energy supplies that are necessary for investment and production to carry on.


British Energy has estimated that only 6 per cent. of the nuclear industry’s 100,000 employees are under 24 and that 40 per cent. of its employees will retire in the next 10 years. Dr. Tim Stone, one of the Government’s advisers, makes much the same point about the nuclear installations inspectorate, which is a crucial body. He says that there are staffing shortages related to the age profile of the expert and highly experienced inspectors being skewed towards retirement age."


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