Analysis

MPs: Nuclear support to be kept secret

Dr Doug Parr
Dr Parr is Greenpeace's chief scientist
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Billions in taxpayer cash could be funnelled to the French state nuclear company EDF via a backroom negotiation that a key panel of MPs yesterday  voted to keep secret from the public.

With all the political excitement about the Tories being defeated on the Commons vote on constituency boundaries, most people can be forgiven for not noticing that another vote was happening in Committee Room 9. Potentially billions of pounds can now be handed over to nuclear energy companies without Parliament or the public knowing about it.

The vote concerned an obscure section of the Energy Bill - Schedule 3. This Schedule is about the Government negotiation of ‘investment contracts’ with companies who want to invest in low-carbon generation ahead of the full provisions of the Energy Bill entering into force.  In theory, this Schedule applies to all low-carbon developers, but in practice it will only apply to a few deals, by far the largest of which will be  the EDF decision on whether to go ahead with new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point.

The Contract for Difference (CfD) process put in place by the Bill will create a relatively open and evidence-based price-setting process. But this is unlikely to apply to Hinkley. Instead the Government will give ‘investment contracts’ through direct closed-door negotiation between developers and the Government over prices. It is, after all, no secret that the Government are keen to get new nuclear reactors built and are designing their policies around this aim.  

Schedule 3 para 3 sub-para 3 of the Energy Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to keep secret  “information the disclosure of which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State at that time, would or would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person”.

Important words here are “opinion” of Secretary of State, and “commercial interests of any person”. It’s not hard to construct scenarios where this could apply.

Looking at the huge cost overruns on nuclear power stations in Finland and France, the developers may well  want to have Government take on some of the risks, which could amount to billions of pounds. But doing so could be seen as damaging the reputation, and therefore the commercial interests, of the EPR makers AREVA, as well as that of EDF.

The Secretary of State could, therefore, decide that this information could be kept secret.  Parliament and the public would not know. A similar set of arguments could apply to waste management or accident liabilities.

The situation is not improved by the fact the same secrecy could apply to any advance deals done on offshore wind. Because the build process for these projects is far more iterative any deals will be far smaller – indeed none have been mooted - but were they to be signed, details could be kept secret.

Secrecy over the scale of bill-payer support for wind would immediately cause public outcry, one would expect the same for nuclear.

At the Energy Bill Committee yesterday, Coalition MPs from Conservative and Lib Dem parties voted down an amendment proposed by Barry Gardiner, and supported by Labour and SNP MPs, which would have hugely reduced Secretary of State’s options for keeping information secret, and obliged risks and costs borne by taxpayers to be made public when the contracts are published.

The vote was particularly significant for Liberal Democrat MPs. The party has always opposed any public subsidy for Nuclear power. In practice this vote will mean they can’t find out what they don’t want to know.

It is scandalous that these coalition MPs, who are there to hold Government and Secretaries of State to account, have handed over such wide powers and have actively voted to allow the government to keep the public paying up in ignorance. 

Comments Add new comment

I'm just seeking some clarity really - quite happy to accept I may have the wrong end of the stick with this one! I assume what you are referring to here is the FID-Enabling process?

The EMR summary states '...the Energy Bill requires any investment contract entered into by the Secretary of State to be published and laid before Parliament (including the strike price and reference price, but excluding information whose disclosure would be likely to damage commercial interests).'

If the strike and reference prices are published, by what other means are the government directly supporting nuclear? Are you referring to things like grid connection charges (or the lack thereof) and the like? 

Many Thanks 

Thomas - The strike price is clearly an important part of the contract but there are other important things we may not know, such as who pays if there is a construction over-run?This is particularly important for any nuclear project, but especially for one involving Areva's EPR reactor, which has been an utter disaster in Finland (Olkiluoto) and France (Flamanville).It may be so that the Investment Contract includes price reopeners. In other words, the strike price increases to pay for any delays. To really hammer it home, this means the British public paying more for EDF's cock-ups.This is what the Coaliton voted to keep quiet yesterday.

The Schedule states that it applies to information "if it is— (a) not the strike price or the reference price". Does that not mean that the strike price and reference price are excluded from information which the Secretary of State can keep secret? Or am I missing something?

If EDF and the government were to arrange, say, government guarantees for funding the construction of Hinkley Point C, could this information be kept secret or would it have to be disclosed to ensure the UK is not breaching EU state aid rules?

I would have thought that if the infrastructure guarantee is used, the government would want to shout this news from the heavens, as evidence that it is taking real steps to boost the flagging economy.

It is very incorrect for this debate to be lead astray with concern about Uranium fuelled generating plant, when nuclear technology is not all about Uranium. The Molten Salt Reactor fuelled by Thorium and proven in practice for 20,000 hours at the Oak Ridge Labroratories, already describes how TSS Inc in Japan, the Chinese nuclear industry and others around the world are redeveloping this 'lost' technolgy again.

With Uranium fuelled plants just burning 2% of their fuel and leaving behind a massive toxic waste problem, soon the Uranium plants will also be phased out together with all of the fossil fuel burning.

The world is on the cusp of a power generating revolution, so all 'green' advocates need to know the scientific facts as these apply to other of the Actinide elements.

Having just read Robert Hargraves book 'Thorium - energy cleaner than coal' I was astonished to learn just how this technology was overlooked (by Nixon) following a successful pilot plant operation for several years in the US. It appears to have been down to political and military expediancy for the generation of H-bomb grade fissile material. Changing over to LFTR molten salt reactors could just be the holy grail of future energy production so environmentalists need to learn this and make the distinction between 'good' and 'bad' nuclear energy.

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