UK: Planning Act Blog 192: Minister Takes Heat over Energy National Policy Statements as Nuclear Events Announced

Last Updated: 1 December 2010
Article by Angus Walker

This is entry number 192, first published on 30 November 2010, of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

Today's entry reports on Parliamentary and public meetings considering the energy National Policy Statements.

Six energy National Policy Statements (NPSs) were first published in November 2009. NPSs set out the need for new infrastructure, and what applicants should assess and the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) should consider when applications are made.

Public consultation was carried out on these and over 3000 responses were made. There was also parliamentary scrutiny of the drafts, consisting of ten committee sessions in the Commons, and three in the Lords, a committee report from the Commons and a debate on the floor of the House of Lords.

Last month, revised versions of each of the six NPSs and accompanying documents were published (see blog entry). Although the revised NPSs have not changed a great deal, the Appraisals of Sustainability (AoSs) that are published with them have, particularly in how they deal with alternatives. The number of identified sites for nuclear power stations was also reduced from ten to eight, two in Cumbria being dropped.

Parliamentary scrutiny

The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee of the House of Commons held its single session today considering the revised NPSs. Charles Hendry MP, energy minister, accompanied by Anne Stuart and Hergen Haye of DECC, was quizzed by the members of the committee.

As usual, the members asked a variety of questions not necessarily sticking to the topics previously set out. Although the members do not speak with one voice, if there was a theme, it was that the government was foolish to commit itself to carbon capture and storage (CCS), which had not even been invented yet, as the solution to low-carbon electricity generation, while ignoring, or at least not sufficiently supporting, nuclear power.

Albert Owen discoved that the government had not decided yet which Secretary of State would decide applications for nationally significant energy projects - energy and climate change or commmunities and local government. DECC had the greatest policy involvement, but might be seen to have a vested interest in granting permissions. It was suggested this might be revealed in the Localism Bill, but I suspect it will just refer to 'the Secretary of State'.

Christopher Pincher asked about how often and in what circumstances NPSs would be reviewed. Charles Hendry said that new technologies such as tidal energy would prompt a review, but Hergen Haye said that they would be presumed to last for a considerable time. I had previously understood a review window of about five years.

Laura Sandys' every question was related to security in some form. She asked what the hierarchy was between NPSs. Charles Hendry said that they should not conflict (and so should all be of an equal status).

Charles Hendry said that the main reason for the revisions was so that alternatives would be properly considered in the accompanying appraisals of sustainability (AoSs), but Barry Gardiner quoted the RSPB as still being unhappy with the revised NPSs in that respect. He read their submission which claimed that the alternatives were brief and cursory, and the findings of the AoSs were not properly integrated into the NPSs. Anne Stuart asked whether that was their response to the original draft NPSs, but I am assured that it is to the revised drafts, which will be disappointing to DECC.

Alan Whitehead started a lively debate about whether the suite of NPSs was a 'charter for gas'. Gas was expected to fill the gap in electricity generation once old fossil fuel and nuclear plants had closed and before new nuclear and renewables came on stream. Would that mean we would be stuck with it when trying to decarbonise by 2030, or would the new gas plants know that they would have to have CCS or be switched off after a few years? Charles Hendry suggested the latter and that all would become clear on 16 December once the electricity market reforms were announced. Tim Yeo in the chair suggested that the decarbonisation challenge 'was more urgent than the present policy was capable of delivering'.

Alan Whitehead asked what proportion of the 18GW of non-renewable electricity generation would come from nuclear and Charles Hendry said that 16GW could be supplied by 2025 - which presumes all eight nuclear sites in the NPS coming forwards. Hergen Haye tempered this view somewhat by saying that what the industry planned might not necessarily happen.

Charles Hendry suggested that there was no place for unabated coal power plants (i.e. without CCS), but later said that CCS might be switched off during periods of high demand since it used up about a quarter of the electricity produced by the power plant.

He gave a St Andrew's Day present to Scotland by suggesting that 13 pairs of lochs had been identified as suitable for 'pumped storage' (where water is pumped from the lower to the higher during the night, when there is low electricity demand and released to generate hydroelectricity during the day).

There was some discussion of matters other than electricity generation in the final few minutes. There was a discussion about energy security, and getting gas from Norway and Qatar; and whether doubling gas storage would mean going from one day's supply to two days' (no, it would go from 15-16 to 30-32 days').

On the electricity network, Alan Whitehead asked about building stategic power lines for future connections rather than in response to existing proposals. Anne Stuart said that the NPSs would not prevent this. Charles Hendry remarked that our future electricity would be generated in different places than in the past.

Finally, on nuclear waste, Sir Robert Smith said that 110 years' storage on site was hardly 'interim' storage, but that at least it had been decided that it took 50 rather than 100 years for a nuclear reactor to cool down. Hergen Haye said that the long-term geological repository (in which there was considerable interest in Cumbria) would be ready by 2040, but would start with waste from past and current nuclear power stations first, and would not take waste from new ones until 2130.

Tomorrow, there will be a debate on the Floor of the House of Commons on National Policy Statements. This is to be as part of Parliamentary scrutiny, rather than the eventual ratification of the NPSs, which is expected to take place in spring next year. Charles Hendry said today that there would be separate votes on each NPS, probably on an unamendable motion, following 'a couple of days' debate (which may be an unduly generous prediction).

Public consultation

A public consultation meeting is being held in London on Thursday - one of three on the energy NPSs in general this time, in London, Manchester and Bristol - which I will attend and report on.

Meanwhile, I have just spotted that the government has announced that it is attending five consultation events being organised by local authorities and local interest groups in the vicinity of most of the sites identified for new nuclear power stations. In one case the meeting will also consider the power lines NPS, EN-5. Details of the meetings are as follows:

  • Wednesday 1st December, 7-9pm, MICA Centre, West Mersea, Essex (re the proposed Bradwell site) organised by BANNG
  • Thursday 9th December, 4.30-6.30pm, Whitehaven, Cumbria (re Sellafield)
  • Thursday 16th December, 7-9pm, Thornbury Leisure Centre, Thornbury, South Gloucestershire (re Oldbury) organised by South Gloucestershire Council
  • Wednesday 12th January, 6.30-9.00pm, Bridgwater, Somerset (re Hinkley Point; this will consider power lines too)
  • Saturday 15th January, 10am-12pm, Leiston, Suffolk (re Sizewell)

Unless they have already taken place and I have missed them, there do not appear (yet) to be meetings corresponding to the sites at Wylfa on Anglesey, Hartlepool or Heysham in Lancashire.

I am seeking information on the venues of the events and will update the above list with what I find.

Previous entry 191: 1004 objections made to first IPC project

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