Weightman Report (Fukushima)
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change if he will make a statement on the implications for the United Kingdom of the Fukushima disaster.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Safety is always our No. 1 concern, and we clearly needed to understand the facts before making any decisions. That is why I asked the UK’s chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, to look at what Fukushima means for nuclear energy in Britain and at what lessons can be learned. Today, I have presented his final report to Parliament.
I have not forbidden Dr Weightman, the UK’s chief nuclear inspector, to do anything. When I asked for a report on the lessons that could be learned from the events at Fukushima, I made it clear that he could determine, in his independent role, the scope of the report as he saw fit. The final report restates Dr Weightman’s interim conclusions and recommendations. It also concludes that the UK practice of periodic safety reviews of licensed sites provides a robust means of ensuring continuous improvement in line with advances in technology and standards. It emphasises the need to continue the Sellafield pond and silo clean-up with the utmost vigour and determination, and it reassures us that nuclear can go on being a part of the low-carbon energy mix in the UK. Dr Weightman confirms the advice that he gave at the time of the interim report. He saw no reason to revise the strategic advice for the nuclear national policy statement or any need to change the present siting strategies for new nuclear power stations in the UK.
Paul Flynn: That was a very bad start. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was present at a seminar organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in the summer, at which Dr Weightman was asked whether he was allowed to consider costs. He said no, his remit was not to consider costs, so I believe that the Secretary of State is entirely mistaken in what he has said here. We have in the report a statement of the fairly obvious—namely, that this country is not going to have the kind of tsunamis and earthquakes that they have in Japan. It does not contain a word about the reason for the rush from nuclear throughout the world, which is cost. That is the reason that Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Malaysia and Thailand have moved away from it, and the reason that companies such as Siemens have pulled out and that RWE is probably going to do so.
I am afraid that, from the start of the disaster, the Government have decided to cover up and to conceal, but the evidence is there. The Guardian published internal e-mails from Government Departments that showed that the Business and Energy Departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational corporations, EDF, Areva and Westinghouse, to try to ensure that the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in Britain. This is a quite disgraceful, scandalous collusion between the Government and those companies, which have a commercial interest in making large sums of money out of nuclear power.
I would like the Secretary of State to comment on the veracity of this claim. The e-mails said that the scandal of the accident had
“the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally.”
They went on to say:
“We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that this is a legitimate way for the Government to behave? They have ignored the costs, which is the real reason why nuclear should come to an end.
I remind the right hon. Gentleman of this statement:
“Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology and the government must stop putting time, effort and subsidies into this outdated industry.”
That is a quote with the Secretary of State’s fingerprints indelibly on it, and it was still there on his website this morning. He made another statement:
“Nuclear power is too expensive, too costly and we should not go down that road.”
That was before he was bewitched by the pied piper of nuclear power, when he was free to think and to tell the whole truth before his mouth was bandaged by the seals of his ministerial office. The country needs advice on the way forward and it needs consideration of the full implications, principally the cost that is making nuclear power unaffordable and uninsurable throughout the planet. We are not getting that. We should ask the Government to do their full job and present us with a report that is comprehensive.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the House and the nation now need an answer.
Chris Huhne: All I can say is that I am delighted; I could not expect anything less from the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Gorsedd of Bards: what he lacks in facts, he is able to make up for in poetry and rhetoric. Let me a deal with a couple of his key points.
I believe that the e-mail exchange reported in The Guardian, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention and quoted, came from an official in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rather than from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. No, I do not approve at all of the tenor of those remarks; nor are they the tenor of the policy making we conduct in DECC. We are very clear that safety is absolutely the No. 1 concern. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we made a clear provision in the coalition agreement that nuclear power could go ahead, providing that there is no public subsidy and providing investors are prepared to do that. That is exactly what is going on.
I think the hon. Gentleman misinterprets what Dr Weightman said about the issue of costs. The situation is exactly as I said. Dr Weightman could have looked at costs had he wanted to; the reality is that he, quite rightly as the chief nuclear inspector charged with safety, takes the view that safety comes first—regardless of the cost issues. That is why he has come up with a report that does not look into whether the measures he puts forward will or will not have excessive costs. That is for the potential operators to judge, not for Dr Weightman, and the operators will do so.
Let me end my response to the hon. Gentleman by pointing out that a published study, commissioned from Arup, available on the DECC website, puts the costs of nuclear at £71 per megawatt-hour in comparison with the lowest marginal cost at the moment, which would be a gas plant operating at £77 per megawatt-hour. Although he is absolutely right that stringent safety measures might add to costs, the other factor that needs to be taken into account is that precisely because some other countries have not gone through the same process as we have—of assessing the facts and attempting to base our policy on the evidence—they have pulled out of new nuclear construction. The result of that is that demand for new nuclear power stations has fallen. Normally, according to my basic economics, when demand falls and supply stays the same, the price goes down, not up.
Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): Given that the estimated cost of the clean-up of existing nuclear waste is £100 billion, that the national policy statement said nuclear power was not risk-free, and that the European cap on insurance is £1.6 billion, whereas the cost of the Japanese disaster is estimated at over £60 billion, will the Secretary of State confirm that cost will be a factor in decisions on nuclear power in the future and that nuclear power will remain an option of last resort?
Chris Huhne: I certainly will not say that nuclear power is an option of last resort; the electricity market reform clearly anticipates that it can be part of the portfolio of low-carbon electricity generation, which could include renewables, nuclear or clean coal and gas. It is precisely because of the uncertainties that attach to all forms of electricity generation, and, indeed, the fact that all forms of electricity generation—whether onshore wind turbines, nuclear power or a new power station—seem to carry with them a little cloud of people who happen to dislike them, that we need a portfolio to deal with both the technological risks and the economic uncertainties.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the issue of the cap, and I would merely caution him not to confuse two things: the third-party liability, which is dealt with under the Brussels and Paris conventions, and the total cost of dealing with the Fukushima disaster—the figure he cited is one of the more extreme estimates. We had a consultation that ended in the spring, and we are looking at issues to do with raising the limit on the third-party liability. Those discussions are ongoing, and we will make an announcement in due course.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I find it shocking that the Secretary of State has had to be dragged here by the urgent question asked by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), but I am glad that he is here because I want to ask him about flooding. The ONR’s interim report stated that there is potential for flooding to occur in the near vicinity of nuclear sites and it went on to say, crucially, that that risk is unknown because
“the detailed specific likelihood and consequences of flooding have not been assessed”
by the regulators. The final report concludes:
“Flooding risks are unlikely to prevent construction of new nuclear power stations”.
How can the Minister be so sure that there is no risk from flooding, given that the ONR has said that it has not had the ability to check that?
Chris Huhne: The hon. Lady is quite wrong to suggest that I have been dragged here; I am very happy to talk on this subject at any time but, unfortunately, we know that there are other matters with which the House has to deal. Let me address the key point on flooding, which was a question that I specifically asked Dr Weightman at the beginning of the process. We will not have seismic events like those in Japan; the biggest seismic event in the UK took place in 1931 on Dogger bank, and I believe that the Japanese earthquake was 35,000 times as strong. However, this country does have natural cataclysms. We know, from the flash flooding that has sometimes occurred at the top of hills when drains have been overwhelmed, that we can get a flood risk. That is precisely why I asked Dr Weightman to examine this matter. There is flood risk from storm surges and flash floods. That is taken into account in the system and we are dealing with it site by site to ensure that these sites can continue to operate with satisfactory back-up systems regardless of the events.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): The Secretary of State will of course be aware that there was a tsunami in Somerset on 29 January 1607 and countless thousands of people lost their lives. He has referred to the fact that the Hinkley Point application has been received. I understand that it is a 95,000-page application, with 50,000 pages of supporting documentation. How are local people and the statutory authorities that are meant to consider that information supposed to be able to do that with any sense of fairness?
Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. There is indeed reporting of a storm surge of substantial magnitude in 1607—the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has raised this in the past. Fortunately, this is not quite as common an event in this country as it is in Japan, as one can gather from our having to go that far back in the historical record. We can count our lucky stars that we do not have the seismically challenged environment that the Japanese do. All I can say to her on the planning process is that it is completely transparent and open. If local people want advice from a number of different sources, they will obviously be able to go to those sources. There will be absolutely no shortage of legal or other expertise available to them to do that. I am confident that they will be able to understand the purport of the application for planning permission that has been made.
Mr Speaker: It is always a great pleasure to listen to the Secretary of State, but may I gently remind him of the merits of the abridged rather than the “War and Peace” version?
Chris Huhne: It is not easy to forecast the future, and we have taken the portfolio approach to different sources of energy precisely because we might be living in a low gas price world or a high gas price world, and we need a basket of technologies that allows us to exploit the most affordable low-carbon option for British consumers in the future. In a low gas price world, clean gas could be the cheapest way of providing electricity, but in a high gas price world, the cheapest way could well be nuclear. In such circumstances, there would clearly be an increase in cost.
s Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. My constituents on the east coast of Northern Ireland have a particular concern about the decommissioning of nuclear plants because of the historic legacy of Sellafield and the cumulative effect of the indiscriminate discharges of radioactive waste over many years. They will seriously want to know why the right hon. Gentleman feels that the future nuclear programme will not suffer from the same problems as occurred in the past, in terms of the cost and of environmental safety, associated with the decommissioning of nuclear plants.
Chris Huhne: The hon. Lady asks an important and interesting question, because I am determined that on the new nuclear programme we should be as open as we can be about all the considerations. Anybody looking at our past historic nuclear programme would have to be shocked. The hon. Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) has already mentioned the £100 billion cost of potential liabilities. On an ongoing basis, that means that literally 55% of the Department’s budget this year is being spent on nuclear clean-up. Perhaps it should be called not the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but the Department for nuclear and coal clean-up, energy and climate change. That percentage goes up to two thirds next year, so the ministerial team is acutely aware of the importance of ensuring that this never happens again. There are various reasons for that. I would be trespassing on Mr Speaker’s ruling were I to go on at greater length, but I will be giving a lecture on this matter to the Royal Society on Thursday, and we will try to arrange an invitation to that for the hon. Lady.
Mr Speaker: The advance notice from the Secretary of State is greatly appreciated, and we thank him for that.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Fukushima was an horrendous human disaster owing to the failure of effective flood risk management, with the wave three times the height of the flood defences. Will the Secretary of State therefore give an undertaking to ensure that, in view of climate change, the flood defences in Britain are estimated on the basis of a one-in-400-years event—and also think again about the fact that he is cutting the projected budgets for flood defences? Will he also confirm that the costs involved will be published alongside the increased cost, given that nuclear energy supplies from Germany will be curtailed because the business there is being closed down.
Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman raises the point that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) raised about the adequacy of our flood defences, which is something I am keen to ensure. I can assure him that the flood defences for nuclear power plants, and indeed for our critical electricity infrastructure, are not under the same budget as the budget to which he refers, and that we will continue to ensure that they are proof against extreme weather events.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Nobody wants a nuclear accident; nobody wants a nuclear disaster. Nobody wanted Windscale, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. Nobody wanted Fukushima, and our hearts go out to the people who are still suffering as a result of it, and will suffer for a long time to come. Is the inescapable truth not that a nuclear power generation system carries with it the most terrible danger, however remote, of a disaster from which it would be very hard to recover, and that it produces nuclear waste, a problem than cannot be solved, only stored? Does the Secretary of State not think that we are heading in the wrong direction by continuing a nuclear programme, and that we should learn from what Germany and other countries are doing by using renewables to a greater extent, and by conserving energy and using less of it?
Chris Huhne: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of using less energy. The Government are very proud of the fact that we are four-square behind a real emphasis on saving energy, which is one of the four key supports for our energy policy. That can be seen in the Energy Bill, which I hope is about to receive Royal Assent, and will be seen in the green deal next year. However, I disagree with what he says about nuclear power. Unfortunately, there are no energy sources to speak of without potential risks, downsides and detractors, whether we are talking about gas or coal. A substantial number of people worldwide are still killed mining coal every year—far more than have ever been killed as a result of nuclear energy—and there are substantial environmental consequences in parts of the world that do not apply such high standards for emissions from coal burning as we do in Europe.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Secretary of State and colleagues.