Asthana opened the session by asking Yeo where our weaknesses lay in terms of energy independence.
Tim Yeo MP, chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee noted that we were hugely dependent on imported gas. In terms of the key pillars of energy independence, he said a central component of this was nuclear energy, with the other factors being greater energy efficiency, as well as substituting imported gas for shale gas. He felt shale reserves could be quite substantial in the UK, and he added that nuclear and shale would both create skilled jobs.
Yeo said he was surprised at the vociferous opposition to shale gas, arguing it would not increase consumption of gas, but only the amount we imported from elsewhere.
Asthana then asked about what was driving those people who were against civil nuclear power.
Yeo felt this was at times difficult to discern, adding he was speaking as someone committed to urgently cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Some organisations were ideological in their opposition, yet he could not see how carbon reduction targets could be met in the absence of new nuclear.
Asthana then focused on how to develop the skills necessary to meet the demands of emerging new nuclear developments.
Yeo said that people had to believe there would be a successful nuclear industry in order to make the choice to develop the skills to work within it. He stressed universities needed to offer the right courses, and said the introduction of tuition fees, and the debts that would be accrued, would lead to more people choosing careers that would provide a good income.
Speaking more broadly about energy policy, Yeo said we should focus on some of the other low carbon technologies that were currently reducing in cost, such as solar. He added that despite opposition from within the Conservative Party, onshore wind should be developed further.
He recognised there may be local opposition to turbines but suggested communities should be given some of proceeds that may result from them. He stressed more research needed to be done on storage, which he felt was a weakness of renewables.
On fracking he recognised that it was “a difficult sell” but argued that people were unnecessarily scared, and that it was not a dangerous technology. He suggested the problem would be the lorry movements, not necessary the structures themselves.
“We need to be very generous with the incentives” he told audience members. Once drills were in operation and the scare stories proved untrue, people would be more supportive. He added this had been the case with the nuclear industry, which was now known for having an “impeccable” safety record and world-renowned regulation. This was the reason why public support for nuclear did not collapse after the accident at Fukushima in Japan.
Yeo noted the state aid investigation into Hinkley Point C was a “tortuous process” and added he would be surprised if approval was not forthcoming. He regretted the previous Government had not started this process sooner.
On skills he spoke about the value of engineering courses to the nuclear industry. The need was urgent, he stressed, and discussions between Government, industry and universities needed to take place.
Asthana noted that a lot of engineers used to go into the city or consulting, and asked whether this was still happening. Yeo suggested that seeing an expanded nuclear industry would pull such students into those careers.
The final question asked by Asthana was on practical next steps. Yeo said he wanted to see Government focus on facilitating other new nuclear investments. There were large companies in Asia, Russia and America who were all interested in investing. The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) also needed to be properly resourced so there was no bottle neck when it came to developing and approving these sites.
He said the Government was very welcoming to foreign investments and commended them for that.
Question and answers session
A local Conservative councillor said the public had a subliminal fear of nuclear because of previous incidents. There was a feeling the industry was secretive and evasive and felt this was the route of distrust.
Yeo said it was incumbent on the industry to be very transparent, yet said the polling evidence showed we were more supportive here than in other parts of Western Europe. People broadly trusted the regulatory system and he stressed the industry would never gain by being secretive.
Asthana noted that people were not aware of the regulatory system, and asked if there was a cultural difference regarding nuclear in the UK and Germany. Yeo said about Germany that there was a history of anti-nuclear sentiment, and added their decision to abandon the nuclear programme was purely political.
Darren Ennis, Nuclear Management Partners, said he was looking forward to NuGen joining the nuclear industry in Cumbria. On nuclear decommissioning, he asked what the Government could do to promote this better.
Yeo replied to say that the decommissioning part of the industry did not have a high public visibility despite the huge amount spent on it by DECC. People didn’t understand the potential, so he suggested more marketing could be appropriate to sell our history and experience in this sector, adding Government needed to play a leading role in this. It could also emerge as an export industry he said.
Ennis was pressed by Asthana on what skills were needed, and he replied to say the issue was around the numbers rather than a lack of skills per se. He said a partnership with Government was needed to ensure the necessary infrastructure was in place. He argued there need be a real push on apprenticeships too, and work to remove any stigma associated with vocational routes. Ennis also spoke about the development of a Centre for Nuclear Excellence.
Yeo strongly agreed with the need for a greater push on apprenticeships, and said there should be other routes for a well-paid job.
An audience member suggested there shoul be a nuclear merchant fleet, which Yeo felt was an interesting point. He said the maritime industry was poorly regulated and had “scandalously poor levels of environmental protection.” He added the International Maritime Organisation suffered from “producer capture” and acted only in the interest of the industry.
Yeo also said there was a massive lack of understanding of scientific concepts across the public. He also added that he was in favour of foreign investment in nuclear so long as the supply chain benefitted.
A member from Copeland Conservatives said there was a huge amount of nuclear expertise at Sellafield that reassured him over any safety concerns. He said the nuclear industry was too important to be nationalistic about. Nuclear waste needed to be utilised he added, which would help with energy security.
Yeo agreed with the concept of utilising nuclear waste but said it was for the industry to develop.
An audience member suggested there should be a level of vocational technical colleges, adding there was a bias toward classical education that was centuries old. On nuclear he was in favour of foreign investment, but said if too many invested in different reactor technologies then we could end up with six different types of nuclear reactors in the country, and so not be able to benefit from economies of scale.
Yeo said if there was a global resurgence in nuclear technology then there would be economies of scale across the world. On technical schools he felt this was a valid suggestion.
Asthana suggesting that with a ceasing of the diploma system the Coalition Government had allowed a devaluation of such courses to take place. Yeo stressed that he agreed with the educational reforms and added than in any case the impacts of them were not yet known. He added that the need was such that all options needed to be looked at.
Asthana said Lord Baker had been looking at the skills agenda, yet faced opposition from the Department of Education who felt that focusing too heavily on employment was neglecting more rigorous academic standards. Yeo noted that what defined the success of a country in the future was the quality of its education system.
John Quigley, Trade Unionists for Safe Nuclear Energy, said we used to have industrial training boards, and suggested we consider going back to this structure.
Yeo felt that those in the nuclear industry were acutely conscious of the shortages and were being proactive on the skills agenda. He spoke about this being an industry-led process.
Responding to another question from the floor Yeo said he did not want the Government to be the chooser of which nuclear technology won out, saying the history of the state picking winners was “catastrophic”.
On supply chains he said the investments in new nuclear were huge and they would necessarily create supply chain companies and growth in that regard.
On nuclear security he said he was relaxed about foreign ownership of nuclear assets, noting regulations were made in this country, and therefore all those investors had to comply with our rules.
Tristram Denton, Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, picked up on some themes from the discussion. He focussed particularly on transparency, adding his company went to great lengths in that regard, and published all technical specifications and relevant information online.
On the supply chains he said there might be a squeeze, but added a range of different reactor technology would just add to the demand for a bigger nuclear workforce. He added that if we got the new nuclear resurgence right it would be a huge boost for the UK.
Desmond Cecil from Arriva agreed there was huge potential for using nuclear waste. On plutonium he said that was a either a major environmental and security risk, or an abundant source of low carbon energy. He added there was a French technology out there using mixed oxide fuel.
Yeo concluded to say that nuclear was an essential component in the energy mix. It did not yet meet the affordability test but this would come with time. He added the nuclear industry should be proud of its history and its record, and that the industry should be regarded as British asset.