HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc465-7
2. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

If he will make a statement on the role of the nuclear industry in helping to meet Britain's future electricity generation requirements. [153629]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)

The nuclear industry's role will depend on its cost compared with that of other generation options and on securing public confidence in respect of issues such as safety and the environment. The generators have said that they have no current plans for new nuclear power stations.

Mr. Jack

The Secretary of State will be aware of the commitment to the industry of nuclear workers in my constituency and their awareness of the industry's contribution to meeting our Kyoto target and giving us security of energy supply. In light of recent press reports of the wish of British Energy and BNFL to investigate further investment in nuclear energy, will he say what is the Government's strategic vision for the industry? Will he support both companies' endeavours to renew our rapidly ageing stock of nuclear power stations?

Mr. Byers

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the press reports about comments allegedly made by British Energy and BNFL. Both companies have denied that they have any proposals at present to begin a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Springfields, the facility in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, is a major employer, and he is rightly concerned about the implications of the decline of Magnox in the next few years and its impact on his constituents. It will be another five years or so before the Magnox fuel demands at Springfields will be in decline, so we have time to work out together the new role that Springfields can play . I believe that it can remain a vibrant manufacturing facility, employing many people. I want to work with the right hon. Gentleman and BNFL to make sure that the expertise and talent at Springfields can be used in future, perhaps in a slightly different way. There is huge potential at that facility, and we have time to map out a way to ensure that it can be used to the full.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the nuclear industry's importance lies in the people in that industry, and that without clear and coherent policies we shall not attract into the industry the younger people we need not only to develop new generation potential but to manage safety issues, which must always be uppermost in our mind?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend is right. We have to ensure that public confidence in nuclear is retained, so we need to explain the benefits that can be derived from nuclear, as well as the safety measures that are in place. Nuclear accounts for 23 per cent. of electricity production; even given the projected decline, in 10 years it will still account for 18 per cent. of electricity generation in the UK. Therefore, nuclear will have a strong role to play well into the foreseeable future. We need to communicate to the young and talented people who want to know whether there is a future for the industry the clear statement that yes, there is. We want diversity of generation and nuclear electricity will continue to play a significant role in achieving that.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

We heard in answer to the previous question that the Government are way behind on their target for renewable energy. Will the Secretary of State now confirm that even if the Government were to meet their renewable energy target of 5 per cent. and then 10 per cent., CO2 emissions would start to increase in the medium term because of the decommissioning of nuclear power stations? How can the Government claim to have a rational climate change policy when, according to their own figures, emissions will start to rise again? Is not the truth that the Government have no coherent policy, save for a hope that that future will never arise? Does that have something to do with the fact that the junior Minister responsible for nuclear power is a member of CND, which opposes the civil use of nuclear power? Will the Secretary of State override his junior Minister and CND and conduct a review of nuclear power and the environment policy; or is the Government's entire climate change programme yet another sham, condemned by their own figures in their own document?

Mr. Byers

The right hon. Gentleman knows that our energy policy has not changed as a result of the appointment of my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe. Our policy remains as it has been for the past few years an energy policy based on diversity and on sustained and secure energy production. The right hon. Gentleman appears to argue that the Government should embark on a new generation of nuclear build, but he must be aware that the two UK companies working in that sector—BNFL and British Energy—have both clearly stated that they have no plans to begin a new generation of nuclear build. Therefore, it would fall on the Government to support such a programme. The last nuclear plant built—Sizewell B, which was commissioned and Completed in 1994—cost £2 billion at 1994 prices. Is the right hon. Gentleman making a commitment on behalf of the Conservatives to fund a new generation of nuclear build? The figures are clear: we project a 5 per cent. reduction in nuclear by 2010 and a 10 per cent. renewables contribution. We shall benefit from the climate change programme to which we are committed. In government, the right hon. Gentleman did absolutely nothing about it.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

Would my right hon. Friend care to tell us when he thinks the MOX—mixed oxide—facility at BNFL's Sellafield plant will be given permission? I realise that the responsibility is held jointly with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but the matter appears to have been lying on Ministers' desks for some time. Given that some of the problems that BNFL has encountered in recent years have been addressed and that the nuclear installations inspectorate is giving positive signals about the improvement in performance, when is the MOX facility likely to be licensed?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The nuclear installations inspectorate has said some positive things about the steps that have been taken at Sellafield in the light of the difficulties that were experienced a few months ago. My hon. Friend is right that my Department and DETR are jointly responsible. Within government, we are discussing closely the progress that we can make. I hope that shortly there will be a proposal from my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment that will allow us to make some speedy progress.