Clause 2 - Designation of nuclear company

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 18 Tachwedd 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment proposed (this day): 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the Secretary of State is of the opinion that the nuclear company is able to complete the nuclear project.”—

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to give a view that a designated nuclear company is able to complete the project for which it is designated.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Welcome back to the Chair, Ms Fovargue.

I believe that the intent of the amendment is already captured in the approvals framework for the regulated asset base. That includes the process for designating a project and then modifying its licence, and wider due diligence on the project. The Government simply would not allow a company to enter into a RAB revenue collection contract if there were cause to doubt the ability of the company to complete construction, a point made slightly more pithily by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend in his intervention on the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. We expect to say more about how the Secretary of State will make this judgment in our statement on the designation criteria, which we will publish in advance of any consultation on designation.

Before considering the matter of licences, let me return to the question asked earlier by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Sizewell C does have a licence, as within the terms of clause 1(2). He said that he could not find the link to the licence on the Ofgem website, so I will commit to write to him, copied to the Committee, with that link.

Designation is very much the first step in the process of amending a developer’s licence to include the RAB conditions. At the point of designation, no commitments have been made; a project will be under development, and further negotiation is required between the developer and the Government. The process is open and transparent and includes consultation at several stages, meaning that a project will be designated only at an appropriate point.

Let me deal with the points raised about various RAB projects in the United States. It is not unreasonable to look at foreign experiences, but it is important to separate the experience of another country in developing and delivering a nuclear power plant from what part of that experience was due to a RAB model. There were several unique circumstances linked to the failure of the South Carolina Virgil C. Summer project, which was referred to, and the parent company, including—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon?

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)

Sorry. I was just wondering to myself whether the Minister had looked all this up during lunchtime. If so, I congratulate him on doing so.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention—I think it was an intervention—from a sedentary position. As the Energy Minister, I have to be aware of what is going on in the world of nuclear globally, so no, I did not look it up during lunchtime, actually; I have looked into this and other US plants. The failure of the Virgil C. Summer project—I think that is the one he was referring to—and the parent company included arrests and a conviction for fraud. There were also issues linked to design and supply chain immaturity, as well as a lack of experience with the construction of new nuclear projects. Those issues are pretty far removed from its status as a RAB project. I do not think those risks in South Carolina are applicable to the UK.

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)

I fully accept that the Minister did not look that up at lunchtime and that he is fully apprised of the circumstances surrounding the South Carolina project. However, does he not accept that the issues that he has mentioned as relevant to the failure of that project—it was entered into without proper consideration of a lot of things that, as he said, were at least in part responsible for its failure—are precisely the sorts of issues that we would expect him to take into account and sort out before deciding on the designation of a project in this country?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Broadly speaking, the answer is yes. I think that all of those factors, if known at the time, would be considered when the Secretary of State makes the designation. That is the point. Of course they would be factors, were they to be known. I cannot put myself in the shoes of the governor of South Carolina—if indeed it was the governor of South Carolina who made the decision—but if he were or had been of the opinion that the project could not have been completed, he would surely not have made the designation at that time. I am slightly hesitant to stray into the politics of South Carolina, but doubtless the governor was of the opinion at that time that the project would have been completed. The hon. Gentleman uses South Carolina as an example, but I do not think that his amendment would have helped the governor make that decision.

This is not just a question of the factors, which are already covered in the Secretary of State’s determination of a RAB designation. The timing is also important. A project has to go through many stages and approvals post designation of a RAB. To include the hon. Gentleman’s additional definition at this stage might be premature, though I doubt it is needed at all, for the reasons pithily put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend about the chances of the person making the decision being of the view that the project might not be completed. If that were the case, I think it would be a highly material fact in determining whether to designate a RAB. I do not believe that this amendment is necessary in order to meet the laudable objectives that Opposition Members seek to achieve. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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)

I hear what the Minister says about the amendment, but I am not entirely convinced that he has made the case that he thinks he has made as to why this addition is not necessary for the designation process. After all, we are not talking here about a particularly adept and alert Minister in a particular Administration taking a decision on Sizewell C. As the Minister has said, this Bill is supposed to deal with decisions that might be taken under other circumstances, for other projects, at other times, with other Ministers, and possibly other Administrations. It is important that we put in legislation everything that we think could go wrong with a project and its designation process, so that the legislation is robust for the future.

On South Carolina, the Minister is right. The project failed as a result of a series of interlocking issues. Those issues were not necessarily associated with the RAB process, which is what we are considering in this Bill, but there were wider concerns that should have been apparent to legislators in South Carolina when the project was commissioned and went ahead. Many of the things that the Minister alluded to that occurred in South Carolina were not unforeseeable events. They were events that could have been analysed out at the time of the designation of the plant. Essentially the amendment seeks to address that issue.

We will not press this amendment to a vote—indeed, we will withdraw it—but we have put on the record our belief that the Secretary of State should have a very substantial hand in ensuring, as far as possible, that the project really can come to completion. I am sure that the Minister is with me on that and agrees that that should be the process by which we conduct designation.

Even if it is not explicitly in the Bill, the fact that the Minister has indicated that he thinks that a number of these issues can be covered within the designation elements is perhaps a step along the path to ensuring that these processes can be carried out properly. I do not wish to proceed with the amendment on that basis, but we need to do a proper job at the point of designation, for the protection of investors, for the project and for the customers who pay for it.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Just to probe the hon. Gentleman on this, if I may, one of the criteria is whether the project is sufficiently developed to warrant a RAB. At what point does he think that the fact that the person making the decision might not necessarily think it would be completed would mean that they do not think it is sufficiently developed to start the process? Surely, if they did not think it was going to finish, they would not think it was ready to start either?

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)

The Minister puts that as a binary choice, but it is not because there are circumstances. That is essentially what happened in South Carolina. A number of people thought that it was a fine project that would go ahead; they put forward impossible timelines for the project to work on, there were very difficult financing arrangements and the RAB was placed on top of that. Yes, they may have thought that the project could come to completion, but it was not a very well-founded thought, and nor was it arrived at on the basis of the sort of diligence we should expect from the approach to a project the size of, say, Sizewell C.

The amendment’s intention is not to make the Secretary of State make a choice based on a potential view, when designating a project, that it might not be completed. He should do all that work, and indeed be publicly accountable for it, when ensuring that his view is as well founded as possible and that it will stand the test of time as the project progresses. There are points of landing between knowing whether a project is not going to be completed, and being sure that it is going to be completed. When making a designation, the Secretary of State should be held accountable for arriving at an informed position, which can be scrutinised in future, on whether it is reasonable and realistic to say that a project is likely to be completed. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

This clause, through subsection (1), gives power to the Secretary of State to designate by notice a nuclear company to benefit from a RAB. The later provisions of this part mean that the designation power can only be exercised with appropriate protections and transparency of decision making. Subsection (3) sets out the criteria a company must meet to be eligible for designation: that the Secretary of State must be of the opinion that, as previously debated, the nuclear project is sufficiently advanced to justify the designation, and that designating the company in relation to the project is likely to result in value for money. In considering value for money, it is expected that the Secretary of State will take into account considerations such as the cost to consumers and the impact on our net zero obligations. As set out in clause 3, the Secretary of State will be obliged to publish details on the process that he will follow when assessing whether the criteria are met.

The eligibility criteria offer important protections for consumers and taxpayers. A company can have access to a RAB only when the Secretary of State is convinced that it is a good project and sufficiently advanced, and where the likelihood of cost overruns is remote. The Secretary of State will also need to consider whether using the RAB to fund the project is likely to represent value for money.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 2:15, 18 Tachwedd 2021

I will come to this in my own comments, but is it not the case that the Secretary of State gets to sign off whether he thinks a project is value for money and sufficiently advanced, and then a statement is published giving the reasons for that? However, the Secretary of State gets to write the rules for the sign-off. Is it not the case that no clear structure or checklist will be gone through so that the Secretary of State can sign off such projects?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that the process and the checklist is set out pretty well. If he would like, I can run through how the process works when we get to the later clauses and look at the specifics of the process. It might appropriate to take him through that.

When considering value for money, the Secretary of State is expected to have regard to the cost to consumers, future security of supply and our decarbonisation targets. The Secretary of State can designate multiple nuclear companies at any given time, so more than one project can be designated for a RAB at the same time, but the designation criteria, project status and likely value for money will be applied individually to each project.

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

Following on from my intervention, I have real concerns about the clause—we will come later to clause 3—and the lack of transparency in what constitutes value for money. In signing off projects, the Secretary of State has to give an opinion on whether they are suitably advanced to justify a designation, but what constitutes “suitably advanced”? What considerations must the Secretary of State be compelled to make to ensure that a project is suitably advanced to give the correct level of detail and analysis for cost definition in sign-off? We should bear in mind that sign-off for a 60-year contract ties up consumers.

I do not see those considerations in the Bill. The Minister said that he would take the Committee through them, but how does the Secretary of State consider how suitably advanced a project is? Does there have to be a working prototype? There is no working prototype of the evolutionary power reactor model generating electricity to the grid. The projects in France and Finland are years late, over cost and still not connected to the grid—and, as I said earlier, the Taishan 1 EPR is now offline due to safety concerns. How can the Secretary of State have any confidence that a project such as Sizewell C is suitably advanced when there is no working prototype?

What other permissions need to be taken into account to determine whether a project is suitably advanced? Does it need to have planning permission? Does it need to have gone through all its environmental appraisals and have all its environmental approvals in place? Are there other things to consider? How far is outline design to be developed? Is there a level of detail to consider to determine whether a project is suitably advanced? How much site investigation work needs to be undertaken before a Secretary of State can have confidence that a project is suitable advanced, bearing in mind the cost of a 60-year contract? Should consideration be given to a company’s track record on deliverability? That takes us full circle to how there is not an EPR up and running. In a way, that touches on what the shadow Minister said about having confidence that a project can be delivered when not one project has yet been delivered successfully.

The Government are in advanced negotiations on Sizewell C, which is the most well developed nuclear project at the moment. Does it come close to the definition of “sufficiently advanced” or does a lot more work need to be done? That takes us full circle back to the discussions earlier about the £1.7 billion allocated in the Red Book. The Minister has still not given us any clarity on what the £1.7 billion is for. Is it to allow the Sizewell C company to develop the project further to get it to a position that the Secretary of State thinks is sufficiently advanced? That would mean that, by default, the Secretary of State knows what “sufficiently advanced” means, so we should be able to understand what the £1.7 billion is going to pay for. Hopefully, all that can be explained.

EDF has claimed it is using Hinkley as a prototype that it will replicate at Sizewell C. It will accrue savings and just move the design almost lock, stock and barrel from Hinkley into the footprint at Sizewell C. I would have thought that, by default, that means the project is sufficiently advanced such that we do not need the £1.7 billion to advance it any further. A bit of clarity on that would be useful.

We need a lot more clarity on subsection (3)(b). What is the process for the Secretary of State assessing and giving the opinion that

“the project is likely to result in value for money”?

What are the intended governance and transparency protocols? We have spoken about the designation in a statement, but there is no clarity on what the Secretary of State will consider and what will be provided in the statement.

In recent months we have had the dodgy covid contracts. How do we ensure good faith rather than backroom negotiations and that there is public trust in what goes on in the signing-off of contracts? When I asked the Treasury a written question about the £1.7 billion and the discussions the Chancellor has had, the answer I was given was:

“Details of any meetings with companies regarding funding are commercially sensitive.”

If the Treasury will not even tell me who it is meeting and when, how can we have any comfort about what goes on behind closed doors in respect of the negotiations and the assessment of value for money? I hope to come back to value for money later in Committee, because I have tabled a relevant new clause.

It seems to me that as it stands, subsection (3)(b) means nothing, other than that the Secretary of State can rubber-stamp something that he believes to be value for money. Let us bear in mind that this is the Government who told us that Hinkley was value for money, even though everybody argued that the strike rate was too high. With this Bill, they are telling us that Hinkley was actually a rubbish deal, so we need the RAB model in the Bill to save taxpayers’ money.

The Government explained on Second Reading that a contract for difference had to be used for Hinkley because it was the first of a kind, so all the risk was on the developer, but that raises further questions. If a CfD was needed for Hinkley because it was the first of a kind in the UK, how on earth can the Government make a final decision to proceed with Sizewell C under a RAB model before Hinkley is even operational?

Hinkley is 25% over budget and at least a year late, with a possible further 15-month delay on top of that. How can the Government have any confidence in signing off on something like Sizewell C, for which the impact assessment talks about a 2023 construction start date? How can that project be anywhere close to “sufficiently advanced”? How can the Secretary of State do a proper value-for-money assessment given all the outstanding issues with Hinkley?

As I said, we need a lot more clarity on that £1.7 billion. Is that going to be the way forward in future? Is it the intention that, for a project to get to a stage where it is sufficiently advanced and the Secretary of State can make a value-for-money assessment, something like £1.7 billion will be allocated to each developer that is in the mix for a new nuclear project? That is crucial for value for money overall.

Paragraph 50 of the explanatory notes gives four criteria that might be used to consider value for money, but three of them are just the traditional Government tropes to justify nuclear in the first place: security of supply, low-carbon electricity and net zero targets. The Minister alluded to that in his opening speech. Those same arguments have been put forward to justify new nuclear for the past 15 years. We still do not have a new nuclear plant operational, so when the Secretary of State looks at the reasons for value for money, it will be very easy because those are the arguments that they will use.

In particular, the security of supply argument was used to justify Hinkley, but Hinkley was supposed to be required by December 2017 to stop the lights going out. It will not be operational for at least 10 years after that original date, and the lights have not gone out, so security of supply is almost a nonsense argument for value for money. That confirms to me that the criteria are too loose and will be too easy. There will be a lack of transparency, but the Secretary of State will sign it off and say, “Yes, I think the project is value for money.” Again, we have this Bill because they are desperate to get Sizewell signed off at any cost.

In conclusion, for me the clause is too loose and too vague. It is set up to encourage backroom negotiations without transparency. At the very least, it would be nice if the Government conceded to an independent assessment of the risks and value for money for consumers. That was suggested in the witness session on Tuesday by Citizens Advice. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but he will have to go a long way to satisfy me that there is a robust procedure in place to assess value for money and how suitably advanced the project is for designation.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that varying and detailed speech on clause 2. I will try to deal with each of his points. First, he raised a series of additional factors that could be considered by the Secretary of State. He might have tabled an amendment, for example, on what those additional factors might be. I do not think I have seen any amendments tabled by the Scottish National party, but he might have perhaps tabled one in the same way that the official Opposition did as a test. My initial response is that the additional factors he raised would be covered by the two criteria on whether it is value for money and sufficiently advanced, so his additional criteria would be encompassed by the two processes that are already there. Perhaps he can table an amendment to deal with where he would specifically like something added.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the £1.7 billion. We have been clear, while remaining consistent with the fact that this is a commercial negotiation, that the funding is to bring a project to a final investment decision in this Parliament, subject to value for money and all relevant approvals. That could include development stage funding to support the maturation of the project to de-risk it. It could also include some Government investment at the point of a transaction, helping to mobilise other private sector capital. It is already laid out in detail in the Budget document. It was debated at Budget, and I reiterate it today. That there is a limit to how much additional information I can put out on something when ultimately the background is that it is a commercial negotiation.

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

Earlier, the Minister talked about UK pension funds as well in terms of levering in capital. Is some of the £1.7 billion going to be matched funding with pension funds, for example, or is it to provide some guarantees so that the pension fund can invest at a guaranteed rate of return, where the guaranteed rate of return comes from the taxpayer?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I am not going to add anything on the £1.7 billion, which is a separate process and a separate factor to the Bill. I have nothing further to add. I have given sufficient detail of where the £1.7 billion might be spent. Where it will be spent is properly a matter for which the background is the commercial negotiation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned delays at Hinkley Point C. He is in danger of arguing with himself at times. At one point he argued that we had not brought a nuclear project to a final investment decision, or we had brought only one in the last decade. Then he said that we should wait to make a decision on Sizewell C until we had Hinkley Point up and running. It sounds to me as if he wants to have it both ways—

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

He is saying we are either moving too quickly or too slowly. Ms Fovargue, it reflects back to the starting position. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind me saying it, I think he is opposed to nuclear power per se. I suspect he is less interested in whether it is going too quickly or too slowly, to be frank, and it would be helpful if he gave us a straight view as to whether we are being too quick or too slow.

The hon. Gentleman raised alleged overruns at Hinkley Point C, which he rightly acknowledged is the first new nuclear power station project in a generation. It is natural for parts of a project like that to be susceptible to overruns. Nevertheless, we have identified the causes of them, including the estimation of construction quantities and the impact of covid on it, and the cost of these errors has been resolved at Hinkley Point C.

Most importantly for this Committee, the corrected information is being used in Sizewell C estimates. We have learned from the experience of what the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledged was an innovative project and the first new nuclear power station in 20 years. The achievement of an engineering baseline at Hinkley Point C will be used to form the baseline for Sizewell C. This will mitigate the recurrence of the core engineering delivery issues experienced at Hinkley Point C.

The hon. Gentleman asked about sharing the value for money assessments before approving the project. On this, the Bill requires the Secretary of State to publish a statement setting out how they will judge a company’s suitability for a RAB against the designation criteria, including how likely the project is to be good value for money, which encompasses quite a few of his concerns. We will publish this statement in due course and in advance of any consultation on the reasons for designating a company for a RAB. The Secretary of State will also consult on draft reasons for designating companies as named parties before making any final decisions.

That is a little bit more information on that process, Ms Fovargue, and on that basis I urge the Committee to support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.