HL Deb 04 November 2004 vol 666 cc423-5

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in light of recent rises in fuel costs, they have re-examined the possibility of building one or more nuclear power stations.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the Government's policy remains as set out in the White Paper Our Energy Future—Creating a Low Carbon Economy. We do not rule out the possibility that new nuclear build may be necessary at some point in the future. In common with all generation options, the initiative for bringing forward proposals to construct new plant lies with the generating companies, and no proposals have, as yet, been brought forward by the industry.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord does his best, but I am afraid that the Government do not allow him to do very well. Does he not realise that that White Paper on power supplies is becoming very frayed at the edges and ought no longer to be called in aid merely to repeat the old cry that the nuclear option is being kept open?

I wonder whether the noble Lord would be kind enough to deliver a message to those two right honourable ladies who have charge of the departments which I believe take a detached interest in electricity supply. Will he tell them that if they continue to be as restrained—I almost said dumb—as they appear to be on this subject, they will be writing their name in history as the two people who contributed most to the lights going out, if and when they do?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I hope that I generally try to do my best, especially for the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I will certainly make sure that my right honourable friends receive the message that he has asked me to deliver to them. I just hope that I come through that experience as well.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, when my noble friend is passing the message to our right honourable friends, will he make sure that it comes from different parts of the House? Although perhaps not expressing it in quite the language of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, will he say that there are a number of loyal supporters of the Government who will fail to understand if we allow the prospect of the nuclear generation of electricity to so degrade that we wind up with an electricity policy which is based more on a prayer that the policy on sustainable resources will be successful? I wish the programme on sustainable energy to be successful, but I am sure that most Members of this House want our nuclear option to remain available to us, should it be needed.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I have a suspicion that my right honourable friends are aware of the views of my noble friend Lord Tomlinson. Just in case they are not, I will make sure that they hear those as well. However, I think that my noble friend does us a little less than justice. The research programme, which is directed both at keeping the nuclear option open and at the health and safety issues that are central to nuclear decommissioning—a matter of very grave concern—along with the programmes that are involved in making sure that we have the right skills in this country—which is also vital—are all alive and well, and compare well with programmes throughout Europe.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following on from the first two interventions, and in view of the growing problems of energy pricing, security of supply and climate change—the last of which was referred to in recent speeches by the Prime Minister and Sir David King, the Chief Scientific Adviser—should the Government not now be urgently reviewing actions under energy policy, in particular both widening and speeding up the range of measures to be taken?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has made this point to great effect in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions, and I have the greatest sympathy with it. The Government must continue to look at all generation options, not only nuclear. The energy White Paper, in which I still have some confidence even if other noble Lords do not, states that the technological innovations will have a key part to play in underpinning the goals and delivering a low-carbon economy in a way that is cost-effective. We will continue to support research into the broadening of the options that are available, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has just appealed to us to do. We will do that as a government, through the research councils. There will be public investment in research in the new energy technologies which will emerge in the future. I believe that the new energy centre established by the research councils is an extremely important addition to that armoury.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is it really true that in addition to the punitive conditions which the Government attached to the loan to British Energy—conditions which I described to the House only on Tuesday—they have acceded to a European Union demand that British Energy may not increase its capacity, nuclear or in any other way, until 2010? Now that the company is back in profit, what possible justification for that could there be other than that it suits the commercial interests of the French nuclear industry and it suits the prejudices of the Secretaries of State?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I am certainly willing to write to the noble Lord to address any questions that have been reported about interventions from Europe. What I would say here today, however, is that the industry is obviously in a period of recovery generally. Forward electricity prices have more than doubled, as the noble Lord will know, from their lowest point in 2002. That is now being reflected in the final prices to electricity customers in the current contract round. We do not have estimates for the final prices that will emerge, but it will be the interests of the industry and its customers that will dictate those matters rather than anyone else.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, when he looks again at the much-maligned White Paper, will my noble friend consider the contribution that renewables are making to achieving our Kyoto targets? I believe that he will find that they are not doing sufficient—although I hope that they are. If we are to meet our Kyoto targets, going down the nuclear path is probably the only option that we have. If we leave it too long, we will have lost the technology, which will be found only in the Far East.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, it must be too early to strike such a pessimistic view about what can be achieved by renewables. The effort to increase the renewable platform is a relatively new one. The Sustainable Energy Policy Network believes that we are now delivering 80 per cent of the key milestones somewhat ahead of time or at worst on time with minor delays. I do not write off our capacity in engineering technology and science to do very well in renewable energy. However, that would still be no argument for closing down the nuclear option and I have been explicit that we do not do so.

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