Tuesday, 15 December 2020
UK Energy white paper whitewashes over nuclear futures
https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2020-12-14/debates/846BF98E-0C0C-40CF-90E7-BD6FF19B4BB6/EnergyWhitePaperalt At 5.09pm on 14 December 2020 the long awaited UK White Paper on energy was finally unveiled to MPs in the House of Commons in the UK Parliament by Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, following months of briefing sections to the media since the summer Sharma introduced the White Paper, on which he said ministers had been working since last year, emphasizing that it “sets out immediate steps to achieve our climate ambitions, to deliver on the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, to create jobs ..as we transition to net zero. It also allows us… to build back greener.” Rising to his theme, he stressed “We have set out a vision of the future for us all” adding “This White Paper comes at a vital time for rebuilding our businesses. It reinforces commitments made in the 10-point plan to deliver a green recovery…Now is the time to seize these opportunities.” Turning to the green theme, he pointed out that “Clean energy is at the heart of our transformation from a fossil fuel-based energy system to one that will deliver net zero. Low-carbon electricity will be a key enabler for net zero as we change the way we travel and heat our homes.” Then he came to how the nuclear fits into this future, saying: “Of course, nuclear power continues to be an important source of clean, reliable and safe energy that, as part of our net zero mix, will help to result in lower costs to consumers. But with the existing nuclear fleet largely retiring over the next decade, we need further new capacity, so I have confirmed today that we aim to bring at least one large-scale nuclear project to the point of final investment decision by the end of this Parliament, and the Government will enter negotiations with EDF in relation to the Sizewell C project in Suffolk.These commitments will be subject to full Government, regulatory and other approvals, including of course, very importantly, value for money. The Government will negotiate this in the best interests of the British people, ensuring low-cost, secure and clean energy over the lifetime of the project.” He next addressed the future financing of nuclear, revealing that ministers had published “responses to the consultation on the regulated asset base funding model used in many significant infrastructure projects.” Such a model, he added “could help to secure private investment and drive down costs for consumers in the long run. We will continue to explore a range of options, including the potential role of Government finance during construction, provided that there is clear value for money for consumers and taxpayers.” Responding for the Labour Party, its former leader - and a former Secretary of State for renergy and climate change - Ed Miliband stressed that “the Climate Change committee (CCC) is clear that, as part of its plan, we need to deliver zero-carbon electricity by that date—2035—but my understanding from the White Paper is that it appears simply to have an ambition of 2050 for zero-emissions electricity.” On new nuclear, he opined that “we too believe that it can play a part in the energy mix, but the Government appear not to have come to a view after years of consultation, frankly, about how to pay for it,” asking: can the Secretary of State expand on what is his preferred method of financing? Sharma’s surprizingly bullish reply was “let me just say to him: we are all revolutionaries now. We believe in the green industrial revolution.” He added on financing for nuclear: “we are at the start of that process of discussions with EDF, the developer at Sizewell C. There is a whole range of financing models that we need to work our way through.” Scottish National party MP Alan Brown, a strong nuclear critic, asserted that the White Paper was a year and a half late, observing “it still has the same outdated nuclear obsession. For existing nuclear waste, there is a £132 billion bill. For Hinkley Point, it is £20 billion. To add to that £150 billion, we have Sizewell C, which is £20 billion, and Bradwell to follow, which is £20 billion. Despite market failure, the Government have not given up on Wylfa, Oldbury and Moorside, so that is potentially another £50 billion. Small modular reactors, advanced reactors and nuclear fission mean further blank cheques. We cannot be serious about energy bills and value for money when it all comes to 35-year nuclear contracts.. He pointedly asked: What cost-benefit analysis has been done on the cost of nuclear jobs versus renewables? Sharma sardonically replied: “I will take it from his comments that he is not a fan of nuclear power. Perhaps I could explain to him that, of course, renewables are playing an increasingly large part in our energy mix, but the wind does not always blow as hard as we would like and the sun does not always shine. We know that nuclear power is reliable, safe and not intermittent; that is why it needs to be a part of the energy mix. He will know that a significant number of power plants will be coming offline and that is why we are proceeding with our discussions on Sizewell C.” But Liz Saville Roberts, the leader at Westminster of the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, was much more supportive on nuclear options. Pointing out that “the White Paper mentions small modular reactors,” she asked: “When will the Secretary of State be in a position to update the House regarding the process for locating SMRs, bearing in mind that the Welsh Government are establishing a development company, Cwmni Egino, for the former nuclear site at Trawsfynydd?” Sharma said in reply: “Obviously, SMRs in the UK are currently at the design phase, and the consortium led by Rolls-Royce is making progress. We think there is the potential for SMR technology to be operational by the early 2030s, so we are still some way away from that.” A Labour MP in a constituency containing an old AGR nuclear plant, Mike Hill representing Hartlepool, said he thanked the Secretary of State for his commitment to the future of SMRs and his target of 2030, but pointed out “that might be too late for Hartlepool power station, which is due to be decommissioned in 2025, the first of the existing fleets.” stressing his area has “a skilled nuclear workforce and a safe nuclear transport infrastructure,” he asked “what hope can the Secretary of State give my constituents on the future of nuclear jobs in Hartlepool? Answering positively, Sharma said:“If there are parties out there who want to come forward with proposals for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, we will of course look at them. The value of developing SMRs is that one will potentially be able to have factories in a number of places in time, and that will mean that we continue the agenda of levelling up across the country.” Asked by Greg Clark, a former Tory Business secretary, “to drive that revolution forward, will he make sure that he invests in energy research and technology?” Sharma said “I agree with him: of course we want to invest in energy research…We will power ahead in research and development and be a leading country when it comes to R&D.” Tory MP, Bim Afolami, (who represents Hitchin and Harpenden which so far has no nuclear facility) said he welcomed the Secretary of State’s support for nuclear and the discussions on Sizewell C, asking: “ Is the eventual financing model entirely contingent upon the 30% reduction in the build cost for nuclear that is set out in the White Paper? To what extent does he see Government investing in nuclear over the medium to long term as a first resort, or should the first resort be investment from the private sector, with Government investment a last resort? The Business Secretary replied that Alofami had made “an important point about funding models. Of course, Sizewell C will be second of a kind in terms of projects. I think there is likely to be an appetite from the private sector to invest in that, but we are at the start of the discussion with EDF to explore financing options. It could involve the regulated asset base model. As I said in my statement, we will look at the part that the Government or consumers could play in the financing, but at the heart of any decision will be ensuring that we are delivering value for money for British taxpayers and British consumers.” I wonder with Afolami’s nuclear enthusiasm, he might not welcome a nuclear waste disposal repository in his constituency? Jonathan Edwards, an independent MP, pointed out that to accompany the White Paper, the British Government have confirmed that they are willing to take a direct equity stake in the proposed £20 billion Sizewell C nuclear plant, and wondered why similar direct public funding is not being made available to other energy technologies, such as the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, instead of the very costly contracts for difference model? Alok Sharma was miffed, retorting brusquely: “May I respectfully suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he looks at what we have actually said about nuclear? What we have said is that we are starting a discussion with the developer, EDF. We have not set out a financing model. As I have said, the point at which a decision is made on whether we move to a final investment decision in this Parliament will be on the basis that any financing model delivers value for money for the British taxpayer and, indeed, for consumers.” Former Wales Secretary, Alun Cairns said he “warmly welcomed the commitment shown towards nuclear energy and the open mind that he shows towards the financing model. He then asked :”Does he recognise the challenges that the regulated asset base will give to assessing the risk at the early stage of a traditional build of nuclear power stations? Will he also show the same enthusiasm for small modular reactors that provide an exciting opportunity to parts of the UK that are looking for significant investment and the job-creating opportunities that small modular and advanced modular reactors can bring? Taken aback at praise, Sharma effused: “I very much support the idea that we should be advancing on SMRs and AMRs, and [he] knows that there is a £385 million advanced nuclear fund to support the development of SMRs. He will also know that we will be supporting a consortium led by Rolls-Royce on that. He is right that that offers not only an opportunity for us to create jobs, but export opportunities for our country in the future.” Unsurprizingly, Green MP Caroline Lucas was unenthusiastic over new nuclear , describing it as “both eye-wateringly expensive and painfully slow in the face of the climate emergency,” asking Sharma if he would “confirm that, far from saving consumers money, the regulated asset base funding model essentially means that consumers pay twice: first to reduce the cost of borrowing by increasing bills before the plant is operating, forcing liability for construction delays on to customers, and secondly for extremely costly power once the plant starts operating?” And demanded that he immediately publish the modelling that allows him to mysteriously claim that this will drive down costs for consumers. In replying, Sharma a said: “On nuclear, of course we will look at a range of financing models. I explained earlier why nuclear is so important as part of the energy mix—it is a non-intermittent supply—but of course the whole point of the regulated asset base model is that, ultimately, it should result in cheaper prices for consumers.” Nuclear fanatic Tory MP Virginia Crosbie, representing the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn in Welsh) – who has regularly demonstrated herself as one of the worst informed MPs on nuclear power in Parliament- said enthusiastically congratulated the Secretary of State “on the publication of an excellent energy White Paper,” and pointed out “the word ‘nuclear’ is mentioned about 80 times,” and the WP also “stated the ambition to make a financial investment decision on at least one large-scale nuclear project by the end of this Parliament’” by way of prefacing her question: “Apart from writing to Santa, what more does he suggest I do to ensure that my constituents on Ynys Môn have some good news regarding Wylfa Newydd this Christmas?” Alok Sharma told her: “We will of course consider any new projects that come forward with any viable companies and investors that wish to develop sites in Wales or elsewhere. She should direct them to my Department.” Another North Wales Tory, Dr James Davies representing the Vale of Clwyd, said: “The north Wales Mersey Dee region has the potential to be at the centre of a green industrial revolution, including from Wylfa Newydd and offshore wind to a gigafactory, hydrogen production and carbon capture.” Former Tory Scottish Secretary, David Mundell said his personal regret was that his own constituency “cannot have a new nuclear power station because of the Scottish National party’s obsessive and dogmatic opposition to nuclear. Alok Sharma observed, wryly [His] “is a voice of reason. I just wish the SNP would listen to him more.” Another Tory, Richard Graham representing Gloucester (near to the nuclear sites of closed reactors at Oldbury and Berkeley) asserted “This energy White Paper is bristling with good things. The Secretary of State alluded to the negotiations with Sizewell C. May I highlight for him the importance of this project not just to the nuclear energy sector or to that part of the country, but to my constituents in Gloucester, where the operational headquarters of EDF Energy at Barnwood are extremely important? Can he confirm that access to Government financing will be the key to reducing the risk and costs of this project? Suitably invited, Alok Sharma responded saying: “On Sizewell C, we are going to look at the financing model and that will be part of the discussion, but one of the other key points is that it will be creating jobs during the construction phase and indeed beyond. A number of colleagues have asked what is the connection between this and the lives of people in our constituencies, and the answer is that it is very much about jobs.” Another Tory MPS whose constituency hosts a nuclear plant, Ian Liddell-Grainger repesenting Bridgwater and West Somerset - home of the Hinkley Point nuclear complex – opined “the White Paper is a really good piece of work. It has taken a very long time and, as somebody who is rather keen on nuclear, for obvious reasons, I am delighted. However, having read through it, I will say that one of the great things we have down here is the National College for Nuclear, and apprentices in this remarkable industry do need time to be trained in nuclear skills. If we are talking about 10 years for the first SMRs and for Sizewell, we will need more people and we will need them quickly.” He then urged the Secretary of State to visit Hinkley, and to “ensure adequate funding within the White Paper so that we can train the future of the nuclear industry.” Sharma responded saying: “He raises an important point about skills, which a number of colleagues have talked about. We very much recognise the need to ensure that we train people up for the sunrise industries of the future, and we will look to address some of that in the refreshed industrial strategy.” Finally, the Conservative MP for Stroud, Siobhan Baillie, noted that “The Government have stated they will be ambitious in developing fusion power and, as the Secretary of State knows, I am ambitious about developing opportunities for Stroud. Business West and other groups are already making the case to use the decommissioned nuclear site in Berkeley as an opportunity for fusion, and rightly so.” And asked the minister if he would “tell us a little more about the potential benefits of fusion power for the climate, for energy and for jobs? Delighted at such a simple question to finish, Alok Sharma enthused that she had “raised an important point” adding “this is set out on page 51 of the Energy White Paper—the Government have already committed over £400 million towards new UK fusion programmes. She will also know that this month we launched the spherical tokamak for energy production—STEP—programme and published an open call for communities across the UK to apply to be the host site. I encourage her to look at that and, should her constituents or anyone in the area want to apply, they should put their details forward.” And that is what counts for scrutiny of a crucial public policy paper on energy in the UK Parliament as 2020 closes!