Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on the nuclear energy sector

5th February 2020

Nadhim Zahawi responds to a Parliamentary debate on the importance of the nuclear energy sector to the Government’s net zero carbon emissions target and outlines its commitment to the nuclear energy deal to develop the skills that the sector needs and build a more diverse workforce.

Nadhim Zahawi MP speaking in the House of Commons, Feb 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) not only on securing this evening’s debate, but on her fantastic recent election result. I thank colleagues who have made interventions—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and the hon. Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill). When the Cabinet went to Sunderland, the Prime Minister met an apprentice from Hartlepool. With regard to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, it is not just about apprentices; it is about skilled workers across the country, including in the north-west arc, dating all the way back, Mr Speaker, to 1956.

Before I was born.

Quite right, Sir. It has been over three decades since Ynys Môn elected a Conservative Member of Parliament and I look forward to working with her over the coming years to ensure that this Government deliver for the people of her constituency and across the entire region of north Wales.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the important issue of nuclear energy, and I am eager to speak to her and the House this evening about the huge number of benefits that the UK expects to receive as a result of the Government’s commitment to the sector. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for her presence. She, too, takes an eager interest in nuclear power, not only because of her constituency and her constituents’ needs, but for the wellbeing of the energy sector nationally.

New nuclear is likely to have a significant role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. In September 2016, we gave the go-ahead to the first new nuclear power station in a generation, at Hinkley Point C; and in June 2018 we committed £200 million through our landmark nuclear sector deal, which includes millions of pounds for advanced nuclear technologies. The Government understand the important role that nuclear plays, and will continue to play, in our economy. That role includes ensuring that local and national benefits are realised, whether through increased employment opportunities or improvements in skills.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn reminded us, on 27 June 2019 the UK Government set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from across the whole UK economy by 2050. We were the first major economy in the world—followed by France and the rest of the EU—to legislate for net zero, and we want to deliver our commitments in a way that maximises the economic benefits of the transition to net zero. Between 1990 and 2017, we reduced emissions by more than 40% while at the same time growing our economy by more than two thirds, decarbonising our economy faster than any other G20 country. The net zero target requires us to build on that progress by transforming the whole of our economy and, of course, changing the culture in our society—our homes, our transport, our businesses and how we generate and use energy.

I thank my hon. Friend for talking about the energy White Paper. It will form a key part of our journey to net zero. To answer her question about its publication date, I can inform her that the Secretary of State has stated that she intends to publish the energy White Paper in the first quarter of this year. The White Paper will set out a clear, decisive strategy—a strategic approach to decarbonising energy, driving up clean growth opportunities and demonstrating international leadership in the build-up to COP26 at the end of the year. I am sure we are all delighted that COP26 is to be hosted in the great Scottish city of Glasgow.

Net zero is not just good for the environment; it is good business. It is already abundantly clear, however, that a substantial increase in low-carbon generation will be needed to reach net zero by 2050. Nuclear will have an important role to play in the UK’s future energy mix, providing firm low-carbon power and complementing variable renewable generation. Britain was the world’s first civil nuclear nation, and nuclear energy has powered homes and businesses in this country for more than 60 years. There are currently 15 nuclear reactors operating at eight sites throughout the UK, and they provide a fifth of our electricity. In 2016, the Government gave the go-ahead for the first new nuclear power station in a generation, at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Once operational, Hinkley will provide 3.2 GW of secure, low-carbon electricity for around 60 years, meeting an estimated 7% of the UK’s current electricity requirements. To put that another way, it will power nearly 6 million British homes—twice as many homes as there are in London.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Hinkley site, and it was incredible to see the sheer scale of the endeavour that is being undertaken. There has been significant progress at the site; in December, the developer announced that all key milestones for 2019 had been achieved. Those included the successful delivery of J-zero for the first reactor, which marked the point at which the foundations for unit 1 were complete and the above-ground work could commence. They also included the first big lift for Big Carl—who I met—the world’s largest land-based crane, which towers 250 metres over the site. In one single lift, it can lift the equivalent weight of 5,000 shire horses, or of two A380s. It is a remarkable piece of engineering. On 18 December, engineers at Hinkley worked through the night to lift a 170 tonne part of the reactor’s steel containment liner into place, and it was fantastic to see the results at first hand.

During its construction and operation, Hinkley Point C will provide the local region, as well as the entirety of the UK, with economic benefits. In July 2018, the Government published “Hinkley Point C: wider benefits realisation plan”. The plan, produced with support from EDF Energy, sets out how the wider benefits of the project will be delivered. For example, Hinkley Point C is expected to provide more than 25,000 new employment opportunities and up to 64% of the value of construction contracts to UK-registered companies.

During the previous Parliament, I met some of the people involved in the project. They told me that all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would benefit from those jobs. Can the Minister confirm that Northern Ireland will gain from the construction of the project?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am happy to write back to him on how much of the benefit has gone to businesses in Northern Ireland.

A total of almost £4 billion in today’s money will go into the regional economy over the lifetime of the project, composed of about £1.5 billion during construction and about £2.4 billion during operations.

Does the Minister agree that we should not only seek to replicate established technologies, but use the new nuclear base-load as an opportunity to innovate and become a world leader in the sector?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right and I hope to address that point in a few moments.

EDF has informed us that Wales is already benefiting from work at the project; more than 1,000 Welsh residents have worked on it so far. Twenty-one apprentices who were previously employed at Wylfa are now working at Hinkley Point C, and more than 100 Welsh companies are working on the project, with contracts totalling more than £150 million going their way. The project is also sourcing more than 200,000 tonnes of Welsh steel from Express Reinforcements in Neath and large components from Vessco Engineering in Bridgend. I hope those examples go some way to showing that this Government recognise and value the highly skilled nuclear workforce and established supply chain that Wales offers.

I understand, however, that talking about successes in Somerset does not diminish the disappointment that north Wales felt upon hearing about the suspension of Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn that we worked extremely hard during negotiations to find a deal that was right for everyone, with Government ready to contribute significant investment.

We were clear from the outset that any deal that was made would represent value for money, and be the right one for taxpayers and consumers. Ultimately, we were unable to reach such a deal and Hitachi took the commercial decision to suspend the project. However, the Wylfa site remains a potential location for new nuclear development, and Hitachi has stated that it is keen to discuss future options for the site with us, based on alternative funding models.

The Government are committed to looking at alternative funding models that could improve the value for money and reduce the cost of capital of new nuclear projects. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn correctly noted, we recently consulted on a regulated asset base funding model as a potential new option that could attract private sector capital at a lower cost to consumers. The consultation closed on 14 October 2019, and we are currently considering the feedback to inform the best approach to the financing of future nuclear projects.

Ynys Môn will always be the energy island, and this Government are proud of the expertise and skills that north Wales brings to the UK’s civil nuclear sector. In September 2019, we published the Government response to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report on the suspension of work on the Wylfa nuclear power station. We welcomed the report, and our response reiterated our recognition of Wales’s world-leading capability across the sector. I hope that we can continue to build on the great nuclear history that exists in north Wales.

In June 2018 we launched our landmark nuclear sector deal in Trawsfynydd. As my hon. Friend is aware, the nuclear sector deal comprises a package of measures to support the sector as we develop low-carbon nuclear power and continue to clean up our nuclear legacy. Worth £200 million, the deal is about Government and industry working in partnership to achieve significant cost reductions across the nuclear sector, and to ensure that it remains competitive with other low-carbon technologies.

The deal includes a number of commitments to ensure that the UK’s nuclear sector has a highly skilled and more diverse workforce. I recently signed the nuclear sector gender commitment as part of the Government’s commitment to the nuclear sector deal target of 40% women in nuclear by 2030—and I say that to someone who has clearly had a leadership position in Women2Win.

We believe that apprenticeships and higher education will be a key component in achieving this goal, and are working closely with industry and skills bodies through the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group to understand the skills requirements and potential challenges faced by the sector.

The Government also consider that new technologies, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble mentioned, could play an important role in supporting our economy and allowing the UK to continue to be a world leader in tackling climate change. That is why our £200 million nuclear sector deal includes millions for advanced nuclear technologies. We believe that both small and advanced modular reactors have significant potential to support a secure, affordable decarbonised energy system, alongside other low-carbon generation. That is why we have awarded £18 million to the low-cost nuclear challenge proposed by a Rolls-Royce-led small modular reactor consortium. The challenge aims to design a working model that could be deployed as early as 2030. The consortium believes that a UK SMR programme can support up to 40,000 jobs at its peak, with each SMR capable of powering 750,000 homes.

To support advanced modular reactor development, we have committed up to £40 million to research and development through our AMR competition, the outcome of which will be announced shortly. Additionally, we have committed up to £26 million for an advanced manufacturing and materials competition and up to £12 million to build regulatory capability, which is also important, to take future licensing decisions on small and advanced modular reactors in a safe way.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn once more for securing this important debate, and the Members who have made interventions. Nuclear can not only help us along the route to net zero by 2050, but is a key part of our economy. In 2018, there were around 89,000 people employed across the UK nuclear workforce and its supply chain. Our nuclear sector deal is looking to develop the skills that the sector needs and build a more diverse workforce. Hinkley Point C will kick-start new nuclear in the UK, providing firm base-load power and energy security for generations to come as we transition to a low-carbon economy. I look forward to working with all colleagues, and especially new ones, to ensure that we deliver for north Wales and support the energy island.

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