Gummer calls for Sizewell inquiry

IT seems inevitable Sizewell C will be built on Suffolk's coast to help with the energy crisis the country is facing. Former Environment Secretary, and Suffolk Coastal MP JOHN GUMMER knows more about the issue than almost anyone else. He is not against the proposal - but he will fight tooth and nail for a public inquiry. Here he explains why it is vitally important Suffolk people must be allowed their say.

IF a third nuclear power station is built in Suffolk, we must take an Olympic Games view of the legacy it will leave.

Housing for construction workers must be of standard suitable for families when the temporary workers have gone, a four-village by-pass must be built on the A12, noise and light pollution must be dealt with, and we don't want more power lines marching across our countryside.

These are just a few of the issues that must be addressed.

There is a real danger that the lights will go out, so unprepared is Britain for its coming energy crisis. The approaching end of North Sea oil and gas, the necessary closure of old nuclear plants, Britain's pathetic performance on renewables, and the imminent need to replace many of our conventional power stations - all these, together with the absence of any real energy policy for the last decade, put the UK into a seriously exposed position. With energy prices at an all time high and demand from developing countries escalating at an unprecedented rate, this is a deeply uncomfortable position for the world's fifth largest economy. Getting through the next 15 years will be touch and go.

Most of what we have to do will not be about nuclear power. We need to use energy more efficiently so we cut our demand. We have to develop carbon capture technology so that new coal and gas fired power stations do not increase global warming. We must learn from Germany and change the renewable energy regime to encourage all forms of renewables and not just on-shore wind. We need to change the rules to make Combined Heat and Power much more attractive and commercially viable. This is a huge programme of necessary actions of the highest priority. Only by getting these things right will we get through to 2020 - the earliest date on which a new nuclear power station could come on stream. So nuclear is no silver bullet. It won't solve the immediate problem and, even if we really pushed it to the limit, it can only make a modest contribution to our medium and long term needs.

NUCLEAR POWER IS NECESSARY

Most Read

So, new nuclear is not the solution to climate change or even to energy security. It does, however, make a contribution and, in the present state of energy supply, that contribution would be most welcome. If we are to preserve our planet for our grandchildren we owe it to them not to close any avenue. To be safe, we have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050. No contribution can be excluded from our calculations, so tough is the challenge. So, if safe nuclear power can be delivered cost-effectively, without any special subsidies, we must go for it as part of our energy mix.

Sizewell, in my constituency, is clearly one of the favoured sites for a new station and, in principle, I would be happy to see a Sizewell C. If there is a national need, we should be proud to continue the local tradition of providing safe, low-carbon power and do something good for Britain and the world. But it must be a two-way deal. Local people have to have the right to insist on the conditions that make the building of a new power station tolerable. At present, the Government seems dead set on imposing Sizewell C without any real local input.

The problem is the new Planning Bill. The first part is spot-on. Of course it is for Government and Parliament to decide, in principle, about big infra-structure projects. It is plainly ridiculous to ask the Suffolk Coastal District Council to rule on nuclear safety and national need. But it is also ridiculous not to allow the Suffolk Coastal District Council to rule on local issues and local needs. Yet, this is precisely what the second part now proposes. Decisions about local matters will be taken away from the SCDC and given to a national quango, appointed by the Government who will 'consult' local people and then issue a diktat. Their decision will be final without any public enquiry or independent judgement.

LOCAL PEOPLE MUST HAVE THEIR SAY

Let's face it ­- this will put the kybosh on any local support for Sizewell C. People are largely willing to accept that someone with all the evidence to hand must make the decision about our need for nuclear, the terms under which a nuclear operator must ensure decommissioning, and the way that safety and waste should be regulated. They therefore realise that the 300 days or so of the Sizewell B Inquiry that concentrated on these issue was a time-wasting distraction that really must not be repeated every time we seek to build a new reactor. That doesn't mean they want to ditch the 30 days we spent on local issues and concerns which resulted in recommendations from the Inspector and concessions by the then operator, the Central Electricity Generating Board. These changes were significant in the lives of people living round the site - not least the agreement to bring in a substantial proportion of the construction materials by sea and rail. This relieved the villages of an almost continuous stream of lorries - a proposition particularly burdensome to people who had chosen the peace of the Suffolk Coast as their ideal retirement home.

For them, as for most people locally, the issues were strictly practical. They were concerned how best to integrate a major construction site in an isolated situation with the established human population, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the interests of agriculture and wildlife. Those are the issues we have today and we need and will insist on our 30 days in court. We want an independent judge of the calibre of the distinguished lawyer Lord Layfield who took that role in the Sizewell B Inquiry.

We also want the Inquiry to be held locally so local people can say their piece. We need this to ensure that the Government and British Energy meet the minimum requirements to make this new power station acceptable to the local community. We will not be sacrificed to some dictatorial quango of so-called 'experts', appointed by Ministers, without local connection or real independence.

We shall want satisfactory answers to local issues that are really important to Suffolk and we won't be bulldozed into acceptance. Sizewell C will be built in an area of outstanding natural beauty and we must insist that the design of the reactor takes account of that. Each of the competitive designs is safe but one is considerably more bulky and intrusive than the others. For us that is a material issue and we won't have it overlooked. Similarly, the National Grid has not yet given satisfactory assurances that the proposed generating capacity of Sizewell C can be accommodated on the present pylons and power lines. We are not prepared to have a new line of pylons march across our beautiful countryside. Indeed, we want assurances that the Grid will also accommodate the peak load of electricity coming into the site from the Great Gabbard off-shore wind farm. We shall also be looking for the most limited land take and the use of any small part of the present “A” site that may be available. Above all we shall be insisting that the necessary improvement in sea defences is not narrowly drawn so as further to endanger neighbouring settlements and farmland but is designed to enhance the defence of the whole coastline.

There are, too, some major issues of construction. The road system in the area is very limited and we shall again want much of the material to come in by sea and rail. This, in itself, is not enough. Traffic on the A12 is already very considerable and to add to it the cars and vans, lorries and buses that are the inevitable concomitant of so large a building site will make life intolerable for many. There can be no Sizewell C without the four village by-pass. This is already at the top of the County Council's list of necessary road improvements.

It is this experience of the construction of Sizewell B that also leads to serious concerns about the large number of staff brought in from outside. Obviously we shall want to be assured that as many as possible will be recruited from the surrounding area before people are found from outside. Nevertheless, we understand that there will have to be large numbers who will move to the area temporarily. We expect therefore, as before, to accommodate some of this temporary workforce in specially constructed buildings. We shall need to see that accommodation is designed so that it can later be used to house families from the area. The growing number of the homeless makes this a necessary price for the nation to pay to the locality in return for our support.

These major issues are accompanied by other important concerns - not least avoiding light and noise pollution, dealing with non-nuclear waste disposal, providing social and education services for temporarily increased populations as well as local law and order and traffic management. No community should be denied their say on the things that really concern them. We must be heard by an independent judge who can demand conditions before granting planning permission. No quango can take the place of English Justice and English Justice is what we demand.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter