Examination of witnesses

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:30 am ar 16 Tachwedd 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Sue Ferns, Charlotte Childs and Simon Coop gave evidence.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire 10:25, 16 Tachwedd 2021

I welcome all three of our witnesses to this evidence session of the Bill Committee. Rather than me introducing you, it might be more sensible if you introduce yourselves in a moment. We have until 11.25 am for this session, and at 11.25, even if you are speaking, I will close the session at that moment, through no discourtesy but because the rules of the House state that we must stop at precisely 11.25. Starting with Mr Coop, as he is here, will you kindly all introduce yourselves? And if you have any introductory remarks about the Bill, that is always very helpful.

Simon Coop:

My name is Simon Coop. I am acting national officer for energy and utilities at Unite the union.

Sue Ferns:

My name is Sue Ferns and I am the senior deputy general secretary at the Prospect trade union.

Charlotte Childs:

I am Charlotte Childs. I am national officer for the GMB trade union.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

Thank you all very much for being here. We will start with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and Dr Whitehead.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q Good morning, everybody. I would like to start with Sue. As you will know, we have had quite a lot of dialogue about Springfields nuclear fuels, the role that Springfields nuclear fuels has played in providing fuel for the UK nuclear industry, and the role that it might play in the future. Could you briefly take us through, first, the problems that Springfields nuclear fuels has at the moment and, secondly, what role you consider it might play should the Sizewell C project go ahead?

Sue Ferns:

Certainly. At the moment, Springfields nuclear fuels faces a bit of a crisis, primarily due to the earlier than expected rundown and closure of the AGR—advanced gas-cooled reactor—fleet, which has been its major component of fuel manufacture, not the only but the major one. The effect of that is that from January of next year it will be producing only 55 tonnes of AGR fuel, compared with a normal load of about 200 tonnes. That obviously has implications for the workforce and it means that that plant will be operating in deficit as from January of next year.

There have been protracted discussions over the course of the year. We have seen two rounds of redundancy notices issued to the skilled and specialist staff on the site, and there is a danger, in the face of continued uncertainty, that more of those specialist skills and expertise will be lost.

I should say that fuel manufacturing is the key function of Springfields nuclear fuels but there is also much wider expertise. It provides a range of other services to the nuclear industry and is seen as a key part of the UK’s nuclear expertise. We very much fear for the future and are in active discussions with the company and Government about that.

There is both a short-term and a longer-term challenge, and a longer-term opportunity. If more nuclear power stations are constructed in the UK, we can see a good fuel load for Springfields from about 10 years’ time onwards, but the problem is that unless we solve the short-term hiatus in fuel orders, those skills and expertise will be lost and will not be easily recovered, if at all. The opportunity is for Springfields, as it was recognised in the nuclear sector deal, to continue as a centre of nuclear excellence and expertise as our unique UK fuel manufacturing capability, able to provide fuel to reactors in the UK of all types, and potentially to plants in other parts of Europe as well.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q Charlotte and Simon, you have been very involved in union representation at Hinkley Point C, and in the discussions on the transfer of skills and labour from Hinkley Point C, as it progresses, to the development of Sizewell C, as it progresses in its earlier stages. What is your view on the soundness of those possible arrangements, and what sort of saving to the project as a whole might arise from that doubling up of the workforce and skills between the two nuclear plants, and indeed the cloning of one nuclear plant with another in the Sizewell C model?

Charlotte Childs:

The conversations that we have had with EDF in terms of building a nuclear supply chain, and the skills required to build both of those projects, and further projects, mean that the decision on the RAB funding model, hopefully leading towards a final investment decision in the near future, creates a really great opportunity for the timelines of those projects to line up, and for the skilled workforce who are needed at Hinkley Point to just about finish what they are doing there in time to move over to Sizewell. It creates certainty for the nuclear supply chain and for those who have gone through a training programme with Hinkley.

We have negotiated some industry-leading processes to ensure that people from the local area can go from low to no qualifications into qualified trades and apprenticeships. It creates an ongoing opportunity for those people and job security that we do not generally see in the construction sector. Time is of the essence. To maximise the benefit for the nuclear supply chain and drive down costs, because it is already in place, it is imperative that those decisions are made sooner rather than later.

Simon Coop:

I reiterate those points. With regard to Hinkley Point C, it is really a no-brainer to adapt those transferrable skills and move them into Sizewell C in order to ensure that costs do not spiral out of control. There is a clear model already in use that we can learn from to move into Sizewell C. The timing of that transfer is of the essence in ensuring that we do not lose the skills from one project and that we develop and move them forward into Sizewell C. Urgency is needed to move that project forward as soon as possible in order to maintain the skills from Hinkley Point at Sizewell C. Any kind of developments have to be in line with industry standards, and we also have to make sure that any misgivings or fore learnings that we establish from Hinkley Point C are clearly ironed out as we move forward to Sizewell C. The replica gives us the opportunity not just to learn from what we have done but at Sizewell C to improve and iron out any problems that we have had to maximise value for money for all vested parties.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q Is it your view that the present workforce in Hinkley understand that possible process, and that they have, in principle, a willingness to relocate should that sort of model go ahead in the development of Sizewell C?

Simon Coop:

The UK workforce are absolutely flexible and they are highly skilled. In construction, the same key workers with the key skills have moved to projects. I do not see that being a major problem in future construction projects. As a result of talking to the company, there are already plans to transfer the operational skills at Hinkley Point B to Hinkley Point C. Those operational skills are currently transferring and people are keen to move on and use those skills at the Hinkley Point C project. There should be no difference in terms of transfer to future construction projects.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Q My question is to Ms Childs. I got a letter from GMB Scotland asking me as a Scottish Member of Parliament to support new nuclear projects because of the jobs that they create. I certainly understand the value of jobs because I come from a constituency where we welcome new jobs, but does the £20 billion for Sizewell C give a good enough return on the jobs created? I would argue that that money could be used to create a manufacturing process or more jobs around the UK rather than that £20 billion being spent at one location. Have those types of discussions happened within the union?

Charlotte Childs:

We are a member of that organisation, so the letter you received and the policy that we have set is based on a wide-ranging discussion with our members. In response to your suggestion about investment in manufacturing, it is not a this or that situation, is it? Scotland in particular has benefited greatly from the current nuclear civil generation, and the zero carbon generated by Torness and Hunterston B have contributed to southern Scotland consistently hitting the 2030 target, working alongside other renewables like wind to provide green energy. Without heavy investment in new nuclear projects we will not reach our net zero targets, and Scotland has set itself an even more ambitious target of 2045 to reach net zero. That simply will not be possible without having a consistent and reliable baseload that is net zero in its production of energy.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Q Could that baseload not be created by tidal streams or other alternates that balance better with intermittent renewables?

Charlotte Childs:

Those alternates do not exist yet and will not do so for a long time. The technology is not there in the short term to reach the targets that have been set in the near future. It is also about investing in UK skills and jobs, and the existing nuclear supply chain—Sue spoke of Springfields and the nuclear supply chain in place to deliver Hinkley Point C. As Simon and I have said, we need to ensure that the decisions are taken decisively and quickly to protect those supply chain jobs. The supply chain for wind, for example, which you have suggested in the past is a viable alternative to nuclear, is not within the UK. We have the skills and the capability, but we are currently importing turbine parts and steel from China to create the wind turbine fields that are currently being constructed. The £20 billion is a lot of money, but it will create an inordinate number of skills, prospects and social changes for the local area around Sizewell, as well as for the wider UK workforce and supply chain.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Q Thanks. I agree with you about offshore being a missed opportunity for manufacturing in the UK, but tidal stream actually provides that opportunity. Ms Ferns, did you want to come in on that?

Sue Ferns:

If you do not mind, I just want to add to what Charlotte has said. Our analysis shows that investment in nuclear is more jobs-rich than investment in other low-carbon technologies. We have done some work, based on Office for National Statistics data, that shows that each installed megawatt of nuclear capacity supports roughly 4.7 direct and indirect jobs, compared with 1.5 in offshore wind and 1.1 in solar. I would be happy to share that analysis with you if it is of interest.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I have seen that—I know some of it is up for debate. It is also about operational jobs. I will happily discuss that further.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

Great. Unless there are any further questions from Members or our witnesses have anything particular to say that they have not said—I see no indication that that is the case—I thank our three witnesses very much indeed for their time before the Committee. Their evidence will be useful in our deliberations over the next couple of weeks, when we will consider the detail of the Bill. I call the Whip to move the motion to adjourn.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

Q I am sorry to interrupt—it is a very dangerous thing to interrupt a Whip—but Ms Childs has one more comment to make.

Charlotte Childs:

Apologies, but while I have this audience I want to touch quickly on the industrial relations model that we have in place at Hinkley Point. The benefit that it is creating for the workforce there could be transferred to Sizewell C, and amendments could be made to the Bill to entrench that within the process. We have a joint project board set up at Hinkley Point B, and the unions have an influential voice within it. A committee was also set up on site to deliver results for our members in industrial relations and health and safety, and we are putting agreements in place for the terms and conditions of those building the plant, and agreements are under discussion for those who will be operating the plant once it is finished.

It would be prudent for those who make the decisions to make amendments that require the nuclear company, as it were, to recognise established sector trade unions, and to embed union access—or the requirement for union access—into the Bill, not just for the client and the tier 1 contractors, but for second and third-tier contractors, as we have on the HS2 project. The nuclear company should have regard to the security of its supply chain, and figures on UK content should be published.

The access that we have on Hinkley Point has created an environment where the GMB in particular is able to have really in-depth discussions with the client and tier 1 contractors on things such as equality and diversity and inclusion. We are currently working on projects to encourage women into the construction sector at Hinkley Point and to create an environment that will be welcoming and encouraging to women who want to come into the sector. Given the skills gap the construction sector currently faces and is heading towards, it is important that that work is done with both employer and trade unions to ensure that we get that right for the workforce. While I had the floor, I wanted to suggest that union access was put into the Bill.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

Q Thank you for that; that is very useful, and I am sure it will provide inspiration for those seeking to table amendments to the Bill. Mr Coop?

Simon Coop:

On the investment question, which I did not respond to at the time, it does seem significant, but in order to have balanced UK energy security moving forward, that investment has to be put in place. There is no doubt, as we look at the streams of nuclear energy, that a fleet of nuclear energy is needed, and this Bill should not be just in line with Sizewell C; it should be a Bill that moves forward a nuclear fleet. We are in a position where, by 2025 and 2030, there will be clear problems in nuclear generation, as six stations will be coming off stream at that point in time. For a clear, balanced energy policy, nuclear, along with renewables, solar and wind, has to be a part of that—not just as a back-up situation, as some people state, but as an integral part of the UK’s energy moving forward. That has to be key.

On collective bargaining and union agreements on sites, there is no doubt that unions build clear relations and the highest health and safety standards, which in turn will definitely mean that any project has more chance of succeeding within budget because of the clear integrity of the health and safety situations through joint agreements.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Craig Whittaker.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.