Speech in full:
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). I speak wearing my hat as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, and I want to touch on some of the environmental issues addressed by some Opposition Members.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima: the names of the world’s nuclear accidents haunt people around the planet to this day. Fears of lethal invisible radiation killing thousands of people and laying waste swathes of the planet—these are very audible concerns. But then there are the facts. No one died from Three Mile Island, and studies afterwards showed that there was no measurable increase in cancer rates. One person died from Fukushima. Again, post-accident studies showed no measurable impact on cancer rates.
Then there is Chernobyl. I have been to Chernobyl—to Chernobyl village itself. I went with the United Nations, which spent a long time studying the medical impact of the world’s worst nuclear accident for 15 years after it happened. There I saw the alarming sight of happy villagers who had refused to leave after the accident and were taking the opportunity to restore the beautiful Chernobyl village church; they took a delight in showing me around it. I met a mother in Chernobyl village who had conceived and given birth to a totally healthy baby. Yes, 41 rescuers died of acute radiation sickness in the immediate aftermath of the accident, and there was a measurable increase in childhood thyroid cancer, which is, luckily, vanishingly rare, but otherwise the UN scientists found no measurable negative medical effects from the nuclear accident itself and concluded they had been vastly exaggerated.
We have now had nuclear power around the world for nigh on 70 years, and it has proven to be just about the safest and greenest form of energy. Safety is measured in the industry in terms of deaths per terawatt-hour of energy production, taking all direct and indirect deaths into account, including through the supply chain. For coal, it is 24.6 deaths per terawatt hour; for oil, 18.4; for biomass, 4.6; and for gas, 2.8. For nuclear, it is 0.07. Yes, that is a bit higher than wind, solar and hydropower, although in roughly the same ballpark, but several orders of magnitude lower than other forms of power, and in terms of CO2 emissions, nuclear produces less than hydropower. It is about the cleanest and safest form of energy in the world, and it is, as we have heard today, massively scalable.
So why have we not embraced it? I will tell you why:
“Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media.”
Those are not my words but those of James Lovelock, one of the most eminent environmental scientists, who founded the whole Gaia thesis. As a former environment editor of The Observer and The Times, and as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary group on the Environment, I believe that the environment movement has been one of the most important and positive movements of the last half century. The fact that we are all environmentalists now—including the Queen, I note—proves the positive impact the movement has had. However, the environment movement made a major strategic error by campaigning so hard against nuclear power. Increasingly, many environmentalists agree. Even as Fukushima was still smoking, George Monbiot, the environmental leader, had a damascene conversion and started making the moral case for nuclear power.
If we believe that climate change is the biggest threat to the planet, we have to use every tool in the toolbox to combat it. We have a moral obligation not to campaign against the one technology that can probably help more than almost any other to get to net zero. The French have 70% of electricity produced by nuclear and they have a very well-established industry. It is not politically controversial at all. They have made it work and made it cost-effective. That is one of the reasons why France has far lower carbon dioxide emissions that we do in the UK. We should change to other technologies. We heard mention of tidal power earlier—yes, absolutely. However, there have been many projects to try to make tidal power work over the past few decades and none of them has yet quite succeeded, although we should still carry on trying.
As I have said many times in this House, the UK has had a really good track record in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, roughly halving them. Our per-capita emissions are now lower than those of many other countries, including green icons such as Denmark and Norway, but France has had lower emissions than us for decades because of nuclear power. I used to live in Belgium and got my electricity bills from France, and they used to have to say where the electricity came from: “nonante-neuf pour cent nucléaire”, which is—in Belgian French, not French French—“99% nuclear power”. That was always a delight for me. Driving around France, nuclear power stations are all over the place. It is not a political issue; people are very comfortable with it.
The environment movement has been very successful in demonising nuclear power beyond any scientific justification. That in part is why UK Governments have been so nervous, and it has meant as a country we have gone from being a world leader in nuclear power and one of the first to introduce it to being a straggler with a semi-clapped-out sector, as we have heard, with all these power plants going out and without much expertise, so that we end up depending on foreign companies and foreign Governments to be able to do anything. We have to build up our capacity again as a country. As we move away from nuclear fuels, we need a strong nuclear sector more than ever.
As we move away from fossil fuels, we need nuclear power more than we did in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s when we were developing it. As we start using electricity to heat our homes and power our cars, we need more production capacity that is resilient and secure. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) made a point about energy efficiency, and I completely and utterly support that, but as we move away from fossil fuels across other areas of the economy and our lives, the demand for electricity will go up rather than down, whatever we do with efficiency. That is inevitable, so we need to ensure we have more production and more secure production.
The recent spike in gas prices has shown our national vulnerability if we do not have resilient energy suppliers, and we must guard against that happening to electricity suppliers. We cannot risk windless days and dark days leading to blackouts in future. Wind, solar and hydrogen power are wonderful. We have done great in rolling them out—wind power produces more energy than any other source and that is great—but they are not the sole solution. We need every tool in the toolbox. We need to ensure that we can provide the stable, resilient base-load that we will increasingly need as we move away from fossil fuels.
In the various debates I have had about nuclear power over the decades, anti-nuclear campaigners normally pipe up at this point with, “Nuclear power is not a good use of taxpayers’ money.” That is when I know they have largely run out of other arguments. Obviously nuclear has to be value-for-money. I am an economic, fiscal Conservative. We want to go for the best value forms of energy, not the expensive ones. It needs to be financially sustainable, and we need to look at the whole lifecycle costs of nuclear power. Clearly the Government have a duty to do that, and that is what the Bill is about. The Government have to ensure we have the right financial framework to ensure that the nuclear industry can survive and thrive and in the most cost-effective way possible. If companies are to invest multiple billions of pounds to build nuclear reactors, they need to do it in the lowest risk way, otherwise the cost of capital becomes prohibitive and the projects are not viable.
I used to work at Morgan Stanley, the US investment bank, and we had a big infrastructure fund investing in projects around the world—not nuclear, I have to say, but many other different sectors. When assessing new infrastructure investment, we have to factor in many of the risks. There is construction risk: can we build the thing? There is technology risk: if it is a new technology, will it work? There is political risk: what if there is a new Government who change their mind and say no? Then there is demand risk or volume risk: will there be enough demand for the product and will it be at the right price to generate the revenues to pay for the cost of capital being put up front to build it?
The trouble with the previous financing regime is that it did not deal with the first risks and expected companies to bear all those risks up front at cost to themselves. That meant that many companies found they had just too much risk to make the projects viable. It is not surprising that some companies ended up pulling out of nuclear power stations they had been planning to build.
The regulated asset base model that the Bill brings about is a far better model for financing the building of nuclear power stations, because it properly shares construction risk, political risk and technology risk between the public sector, consumers and companies. The RAB model is a completely standard model that has been widely used in other areas of infrastructure for decades and is well understood, as various Members have pointed out. The Government and companies have experience of the RAB model. We know it works well and we know how to make it work well in the interests of both parties. I am delighted that we are on the front foot again with nuclear power as a country. As we progress and improve our expertise as a nation, as we have heard we need to do, nuclear power will get more standardised, easier to build, and better value for money. The Government must continue to have courage in their convictions with nuclear power. I fully commend the Bill to the House.