Commons debate on nuclear power at Sellafield

There was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, secured at the request of the MP for Copeland, at the conclusion of which the Minister made the following statement.

Charles Hendry (Minister of State (Renewable Energy), Energy and Climate Change; Wealden, Conservative)

"Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this debate. I congratulate Mr Reed on securing it and thank him for doing so. The matter is timely and important, not just to his constituency but to our national interest

more generally. I am delighted to see on the Front Bench and to congratulate Caroline Flint and Tom Greatrex on their appointments to the important positions in the shadow team.

I am grateful for the chance to clarify the Government’s position on the future of the nuclear industry in Sellafield, although I cannot give the hon. Member for Copeland all of the answers that he seeks today. I begin by acknowledging the vital contribution that the nuclear industry makes to the economic prosperity of west Cumbria, and also the important contribution that the people of Copeland have made and continue to make to Britain’s nuclear heritage. West Cumbria is at the heart of the UK’s nuclear industry and has been since the early days in the 1950s. There is an enormous wealth of nuclear expertise and knowledge, and we want to maintain and use that for the future. The future is promising for west Cumbria as a nuclear community. There are plans for new nuclear to play a part, local authorities are expressing an interest in hosting a geological disposal facility, and decommissioning commitments are ongoing.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are fully focused on working with west Cumbria to deliver these commitments, as we are in ensuring that new nuclear has a role to play in the UK's future energy mix. The hon. Gentleman was kind and generous in his comments and we agree on much, but I hope that he will understand that I was a little disappointed by some of his recent media comments about the pace of movement and progress in these areas. I hope that in the light of the terrible events in Fukushima some months ago he will have welcomed the ongoing commitment that the British Government have shown to nuclear in comparison with many other Governments elsewhere.

The UK has everything to gain from becoming the No. 1 destination to invest in new nuclear. Nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon source of electricity around, so it keeps the bills down and the lights on. The Government have remained committed in their efforts to ensure that the conditions are right for investment in new nuclear in the UK. We are very pleased to build on the legacy that we received in this area from Lord Hutton when he was Secretary of State.

We have made significant progress in the 18 months we have been in power to ensure that the conditions for investment are right. Last October, the Secretary of State made his decision that two nuclear reactor designs should be justified, which was approved by the House by a large majority of 520 votes to 27—one of the largest majorities that we have seen on any issue. In July we designated the national policy statements for energy infrastructure, including a list of suitable sites for nuclear power stations. Those had been delayed as a result of amendments to emissions in the earlier drafts, but I know that the hon. Gentleman was pleased that Sellafield was one of the sites included in that list. We have also created the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and we plan to bring forward legislation to create a new independent statutory body as soon as we can. The regulators are continuing to work with the industry to take forward the generic design assessment process for new reactors. They have published agreed resolution plans for the issues that need to be resolved, and they will also need to factor Dr Weightman's report into their final assessment.

In the coming months the Government will look to finalise the framework governing the financing of decommissioning and waste management for new nuclear power stations. That will ensure that operators make secure financial provision from the outset in line with the Government's policy that there should be no subsidy for new nuclear. We have done all that in the wake of the tragic circumstances at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. We needed to understand the facts before making any decisions. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, to look at what Fukushima means for nuclear energy in Britain and what lessons can be learned.

The UK is most certainly open for business in the nuclear sector. Investors know that EDF Energy will begin preliminary works at Hinkley Point soon and is preparing its planning application as we speak to put to the Infrastructure Planning Commission this autumn. I am also encouraged by the prospects for new nuclear in west Cumbria. The NuGeneration consortium has set out plans to build up to 3.6 GW of new nuclear capacity at Sellafield. We hope that construction will begin in 2015, with commercial operation of a new nuclear power station expected by 2023. Both Iberdrola and GDF SUEZ remain confident about new nuclear in west Cumbria and have increased their stakes in the project. They see no reason why the decision by Scottish and Southern Energy to end its involvement with NuGen should impact on their plans or timetable.

Sellafield is central to the west Cumbrian economy. The Sellafield site has been around for over half a century and has brought many new opportunities to the area. There are opportunities because we are pushing forward scientific frontiers in relation to clean-up and the management of radioactive waste. I congratulate west Cumbria sincerely on taking the lead in decommissioning one of the world’s largest and most complex facilities. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Government have allocated extra resources to that vital work. As I have mentioned, new nuclear power is once again on the agenda and west Cumbria is at the forefront of this, with land earmarked for development next to the Sellafield site. That will potentially provide 5,000 construction jobs at peak and 1,000 long-term operating jobs. We join him in wanting to see the economic success for the community he represents.

Radioactive waste is of course always an issue of great importance when talking about the future of the nuclear industry. West Cumbria has also expressed an interest in the process of geological disposal of radioactive waste. We are working in partnership to explore what that would involve. Should west Cumbria decide to participate in the next stages of the process—I emphasise that, in relation to this matter, we strongly believe in the voluntarist principle—it would show a real commitment to finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal. The community is to be applauded for having the vision to find out more about the reality of that process and for fully considering all the implications, including the potential economic benefits. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the fact that we have sought to speed up the process by a decade.

The geological disposal facility would be a multi-billion pound engineering development on an enormous scale which will employ an average of over 500 people for

perhaps a century to come. Apart from the income generated, we expect that there will also be spin-off benefits through associated engineering and supply chain developments and potentially further additional benefits. Therefore, notwithstanding the long-term decommissioning of Sellafield that will see billions of pounds spent on cleaning up the site over the next 100 years, there are potentially major opportunities available to west Cumbria through the nuclear sector.

I now turn to the options for plutonium and the implications for future production of mixed oxide fuel at Sellafield. The future of MOX production at Sellafield can be described primarily by two recent events. The first was the publication in February of the Government’s consultation on the long-term management of the UK’s plutonium—we have the largest stockpile of plutonium in the world. The second was the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s announcement in August that it was to close the existing Sellafield MOX plant. Although both events are to an extent linked, it must be remembered that the Sellafield MOX plant was built to deal with overseas-owned plutonium recovered through reprocessing and was never intended to deal with the UK’s plutonium. A decision to close the SMP was taken by the NDA following a changed commercial risk profile arising from potential delays after the earthquake in Japan and subsequent events.

To ensure that the UK taxpayer did not carry a future financial burden from the SMP, the NDA concluded that the only reasonable course of action was to close the facility at the earliest practical opportunity. It was apparent that the SMP was never going to provide a solution for the large volumes of UK plutonium, which would need to be managed in new facilities. I am very grateful for the realistic approach that the hon. Gentleman has taken on that.

In our consultation on plutonium management we set out three high-level options for dealing with plutonium: continued storage; immobilisation followed by disposal as a waste; and reuse of the plutonium in the form of MOX fuel. The consultation set out at a high level the advantages and disadvantages of each option, but the Government’s preliminary view was that the best prospect of implementing a successful solution lay with the option of reusing MOX as a fuel and, therefore, with seeing its value rather than simply its cost, as the hon. Gentleman rightly called for us to do.

That option was the more technically mature, given that MOX fuel had been successfully fabricated and used in reactors in Europe, and given that by comparison no equally mature immobilisation technology was readily employable. Nevertheless, we recognised that there were still risks with the reuse-as-MOX option, particularly given the poor performance of the Sellafield MOX plant. The poor performance put limitations on throughput, which meant that, even if we wanted to use it, the Sellafield MOX plant would never be able to deal with all the UK’s plutonium.

For that reason, we acknowledged that to implement a reuse solution the Government would need to procure a new MOX plant, but as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the UK also stores significant quantities of overseas-owned plutonium, so pursuing a reuse-as-MOX option for UK plutonium could offer an opportunity for the overseas owners of plutonium currently stored in the UK to have their plutonium managed in the same way."

(At this point the MP for Copeland intervened to ask about what would happen to Scottish waste stored at Sellafield in the event of Scottish independence.)

"That departs just a little from the subject of the debate, and, although the hon. Gentleman is determined as I am to see off that threat, we are dealing with an issue that is not going to arise. However, in the event of separation there would clearly be implications for a settlement and they would need to be addressed and resolved. It is premature, however, to sit down and deal with those issues at this stage.

Were we to proceed down the path of a reuse, any new MOX plant would need to learn from the lessons of the past and take into account the experience from overseas. Additionally we anticipate that, for security reasons and to minimise the transportation of plutonium, any new MOX facilities would be located as close to the plutonium as possible and most likely in west Cumbria, which I believe many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would actively welcome. Plutonium management is a high-profile issue that requires appropriate consideration, and it is not a decision that can be taken quickly. The Government are in the process of clearing our response through Cabinet, and we anticipate being in a position to publish our response shortly.

I, like the Prime Minister, have made it clear that nuclear should remain part of the future energy mix, alongside other technologies such as renewable and carbon capture and storage, provided that there is no public subsidy for nuclear, and the Weightman report, published today, provides no grounds to question our approach that nuclear should be part of the energy mix in future, as it is today. The next step on plutonium management is for the Government to publish their response to the consultation paper, and, as I have just said, we are in the process of clearing our response through Cabinet and anticipate being in a position to make an announcement shortly.

We all recognise that nuclear power plays a significant role in the UK’s electricity supply, but that nuclear also results in radioactive waste. West Cumbria has expressed interest in the geological disposal of radioactive waste, and we are working in partnership to explore what that would involve. I pay tribute to the community as a whole, to the hon. Gentleman as their Member of Parliament and to the local authorities for having the vision to find out more about the process and to work very closely with us to see how we can take it forward."


Anonymous said…
to paraphrase fawlty towers,

welcome to mastermind

Your name please: "David Cameron"
your chosen subject: "Stating the bleeding obvious"

just a little thought, how about building a mox plant on a footprint that allows a mox plant to operate, that is a line across not up. Placing it at sellafield next to the new generation reactors, so we dont need to transport it so far to be used, cor what a great plan.

Then we can also put in the repository to get shot of some hal, what a great plan that is, it means that it can come out of the VPS store and have a secure future
Anonymous said…
One of the key things the above poster has forgot to mention is that the ONR do not currently allow UK Nuclear reactors to use MOX fuel. They only allow the use of first pass fuel.

Therefore any MOX produced would
a) Require a change of the regulator's policy
b) Require the MOX to be sold abroad.

The longer we leave the Pu in storage the more difficult the problem becomes because of radioactive decay, which mean that the Pu will have to be effectively cleaned up prior to use in any new fuel.
Chris Whiteside said…
You're certainly right that there would have to be a change in policy to allow the use of reprocessed fuel, or allow it to be sold abroad, or both.

But it's clear from the minister's comments that they are considering just such a changes in policy.

He's right that this would be something which many residents of Copeland would "actively welcome."

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