HL Deb 02 December 2003 vol 655 cc175-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any further explanation of what they mean by "keeping the nuclear energy option open".

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government's policy on nuclear power is set out in the energy White Paper, Our Energy Future—creating a low carbon economy.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, no one could possibly be thankful for that! On the other hand, it would be unfair to blame the noble Lord, who has no real presence in or influence on the DTI.

Would he be good enough to convey to Ministers in the DTI that the nuclear option, which they say they are keeping open, will not survive without substantial encouragement and investment? Will he add that their present lofty unconcern may well, before long, be seen as becoming a serious hazard to the security of our electricity supplies?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, far from it being lofty unconcern, the Government are maintaining that the White Paper covered all aspects of the security of energy supplies over the next decades. We are in the course of considerable energy change, which the White Paper recognised. Furthermore, the White Paper indicated that the nuclear energy option should be kept open, which meant some commitment to resources. As I have indicated to the House on previous occasions, certain resources are being devoted to ensuring that the skills and research functions with regard to the nuclear industry are maintained.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the Minister knows exactly what the problem is: everyone in the energy industry is extremely worried about the possibility of a fundamental breakdown as a result of the Government not yet making up their mind.

Of course nuclear power is an option—and many of us believe that it is the option. Wood-fired power stations are an option, but does the Minister agree that people want to know what the serious options are and how they are ranked against each other? It is not an unreasonable thing to ask at this stage.

Lord Davies of Oldham

No, my Lords, it is not an unreasonable thing to ask. The White Paper addressed those issues. It indicated the areas from which we would seek to derive our energy supplies in a changing environment; one which requires us to hit certain carbon emission targets and one in which, as North Sea oil resources decline, we would become more dependent on imports of gas, for example. All those are live issues, including the nuclear option, and all are considered in the White Paper. Of course the Government have a review group looking at energy provision in order that Ministers are continually kept fully informed about the evolving situation.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, describing the nuclear energy issue as an "option" suggests that there may well be alternatives that could be used to meet the increasing demands of this population. Are the Government serious in finding alternatives in order to disband nuclear energy and meet out demands?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the House will recognise that all energy issues, including nuclear, involve long-term perspectives. My noble friend will recognise that under present scheduling the last nuclear power station will conclude its active life in 2035. For that reason, we are able to say that provided we ensure that certain investment is made, we can keep the nuclear option open while at the same time recognising that there are other forms of energy into which we can tap. We are predicting that renewables will provide 10 per cent of our energy needs by 2010. If that target is not reached, we will need flexibility with regard to alternatives. But that is the target on renewables and it increases substantially in subsequent decades.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, mentioned nuclear waste which plays an important part in the possible future of the nuclear industry. When is an agreed solution likely to be found to the long-term management of nuclear waste? Is the Minister aware that the issue has been under discussion for many years and that the proposed setting up of a nuclear decommissioning authority makes it all the more urgent that a decision should be reached?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is certainly so. The noble Lord is right to say that the gestation period for the development of the complex and difficult policy has lasted a number of years. We expect that we shall reach conclusions with regard to nuclear waste in the not too distant future.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to supplies of gas having to be imported when North Sea supplies run out in the not too distant future. What steps are the Government taking to secure adequate supplies of gas for electricity generation, perhaps by converting coal into gas, the technologies for which require much development?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We shall certainly need to consider that possibility. He will recognise that the gap in our energy needs that will open up with the decline in North Sea production will involve us in engaging in contracts and in the development of supplies across Europe, in common with other European countries, to guarantee that we have sufficient gas to provide for our needs. That development will put us firmly into the ranking of all other G7 countries with the sole exception of Canada. They are all dependent on energy supplies and we play our part in ensuring that Europe receives the supplies that it needs.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, following the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, what remotely viable alternative is there to a deep geological depository for nuclear waste?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is a frontrunner as the noble Earl has indicated. Since 1995 we have been involved in a serious exercise. The reason why it will take as much as a decade before we are able to reach a conclusion is that the technology issues are exceedingly complex, and they are set against a background of proper national concerns about how we handle radioactive waste which has a life cycle running into thousands of years.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, being totally ignorant of the subject, can my noble friend advise the House whether nuclear waste can safely be put into space?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, as has already been hinted this afternoon, I am not high in the food chain in the Department of Trade and Industry. I am certainly not high enough to go into space exploration.

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