Christopher Pincher is a member of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and MP for Tamworth.
Last month, the eyes of the global nuclear industry were fixed firmly on Britain as our Energy Secretary announced that the Government will take direct responsibility for decommissioning at Sellafield. The decision was the right one, and offers the United Kingdom a fresh opportunity to get to grips with the challenge at this West Cumbrian landmark. Over the next two months, as we approach the most crucial general election in a generation, those international eyes will closely scrutinise the campaign, and its outcome.
Sellafield is one of the world’s most complex industrial sites. Dating from the 1940s, many of the current issues are rooted in that pioneering era of nuclear energy in which the need to decommission facilities, then not properly understood, was trumped by the desire to build futuristic sources of power. It also has the world’s largest stockpile of civil plutonium – over 100 tonnes and growing.
Getting decommissioning right is of material importance to the United Kingdom. Sellafield is a hugely important centre with employees and local supply chain accounting for over a quarter of the entire national nuclear sector. If essential plans for the new build are to proceed, we need to make consistent progress in decommissioning existing facilities and in dispositioning the plutonium at the site.
In particular, the next Conservative Government must ensure that fiscal pressures do not affect support for the clean-up at Sellafield. Whilst we are rightly committed to eliminating the deficit in the next Parliament, it is vital that we resist the temptation to delay some of the ongoing projects at the site on the grounds of cost. The opportunity cost of delay will be even greater as existing facilities deteriorate, and as many of the stored materials become more difficult to manage.
We are not the only country facing challenges in modernising and washing down our nuclear sites. If we can get the legacy clean-up at Sellafield right, the United Kingdom will have a world-leading expert and knowledge base to export to the rest of the world. That know-how could be a major money earner for British business – and the Exchequer.
The specific challenge of plutonium disposition exemplifies the challenge – and the opportunity. Re-using the stockpile could create thousands of highly-skilled jobs and a significant quantity of low-carbon energy. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is currently working with three different technologies, MOX, Candu and GE Hitachi’s PRISM, to assess their feasibility for reusing the stockpile of plutonium. This is a long and rigorous process which will ensure that only once the NDA is satisfied that a chosen technology is safe and represents value for money will it be taken forward. It is vital that this process continues under the next government – and that it is advanced as clearly and as quickly as possible.
Some are tempted to put the programme on ice. DECC officials may be attracted to the idea of making a small saving tomorrow by agreeing to postpone further work. This temptation must be resisted.
The Prime Minister has often spoken of our moral duty not to leave the next generation saddled with a legacy of debt. That is a fundamental principle of duty today and fairness for tomorrow. That principle applies as much to cleaning up Sellafield and re-using spent materials as it does to cleaning up our finances and rebalancing our economy. The Conservative energy policy makers in the next parliament (and with the departure of Charles Hendry, Greg Barker, Tim Yeo, Dan Byles and Laura Sandys – to name just five: there will be far fewer experts) must take note.