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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 October 2005, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Nuclear resurgence?
On Sunday 02 October 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Alan Johnson MP
Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

ANDREW MARR: Now you may remember that last week Tony Blair was almost bouncingly provocative about the diehards in his party resisting his reforms.

To the left, including the unions, his speech was unusually confrontational, more state independent schools, more private involvement in the NHS, and a clear reference to possibly building a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain.

Now ministers are divided about this but the man who is in charge is the Trade & Industry Secretary, Alan Johnson, and he's here now. Welcome Alan.

You've been five months or so in the job, have you come yourself to any conclusion about the case, for or against, more nuclear power stations?

ALAN JOHNSON: No, I come to this subject without any previous history - so does my energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, we're generally neutral on nuclear. But what I am absolutely sure about is we have to make a decision pretty soon if we are going to have nuclear new build, and we ought to, we have to make a decision not just on nuclear but on the whole mix of energy, 20, 30, 40 years into the future.

ANDREW MARR: There's going to be a considerable energy gap, because of what's happening to oil and to gas, and we would have to cover the entire country, it seems to me, in wind farms if we were going to meet it entirely from renewables.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well sometimes people say that in a rather derogatory fashion - actually we've had a record year last year on renewables with a lot further to go -

ANDREW MARR: What's the percentage? It's still small isn't it?

ALAN JOHNSON: It's something - yes - well we're looking for ten per cent by 2010 of electricity generation, 15 per cent by 2015, 20 per cent by 2020.

But we come from a very slow start, other countries like Denmark were well in advance of us there. So the concentration on renewables and the concentration on energy conservation was absolutely right.

But now because all of our nuclear power stations will be retired, which is the term that's used, over the next 20, 25 years, we have to make a decision now whether to replace them as part of that general policy to concentrate on the effect on the climate, concentrate on security of supply and affordability for the customer.

ANDREW MARR: Going nuclear would cause absolute outrage in a large swathe of the Labour Party and beyond.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well I think it would if we went nuclear on the basis that, you know, government- dictat says we're going nuclear. What we really need is to have a proper mature debate about this issue. The whole question of climate change, many environmentalists now accept that the more we increase renewables, we're just running to catch up because as nuclear energy diminishes we're losing a form of C02 free emissions.

So there is a different approach now - if you look at countries like Finland where environmentalists, to a large degree, are now supportive of nuclear energy -but I mean the major question, and the point you make, is it's still very controversial - what do we do with the waste? How do we afford it? And that's why I am certainly still agnostic on this, but, you know, in terms of the review and the discussion and the debate we have, I think that will ...

ANDREW MARR: So when do you take a decision - because -


ANDREW MARR: I was going to say when do you take a decision, because Tony Blair doesn't mention words like civil nuclear power in a speech without intending to send a signal.

ALAN JOHNSON: I, well I think what the Prime Minister was saying is what is, I think, pretty obvious, that we have to now make government decisions so we can put proposals before the British people next year -

ANDREW MARR: Next year.

ALAN JOHNSON: - we can - yes - we can have a debate about this issue - Tony Blair has said right from the general election in May that we need to tackle this issue within this parliament, and I think early in this parliament is the time for government to make its decisions and its recommendations and then for a proper public debate before we act upon those.

ANDREW MARR: Is it the case that you would be happy to see some of the current nuclear processing operations at the place, we used to call it Windscale, being sold off, including to American companies?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well BNFL have announced that British Nuclear Group, which is actually just about managing these plants and dealing with the waste, that they made a decision as a board to sell that off. That's not a decision that's come to me yet, I think they wrote to us on Friday.

ANDREW MARR: And when it does come to you, what will you say?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well - I don't know - I think I'll say I'd better not announce that on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning programme, we'd better talk about this first and then announce what ...

ANDREW MARR: It's interesting, it's said that other countries would regard this as part of the national strategic interest, it couldn't possibly be sold off, certainly to foreign owners.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well I, I don't think that's a valid argument, given that what BNG is about, it's about how you could tackle waste and how you manage the plants. BNFL, which is the parent company, remains owned, I think entirely by me, incidentally.

ANDREW MARR: Well lucky man or not. So you're not saying no anyway. ... okay.


ANDREW MARR: Okay. Coming now nearer to hand, there's been a lot of talk, notably from the CBI recently, about a real energy problem this winter, particularly if it's a very cold winter, the CBI has even talked about the possibility of there being blackouts for parts of industry. Is that alarmist nonsense or is there something in this?

ALAN JOHNSON: There's something in it in the sense that if we have what's called a one in 50 winter, a very, very bad winter, some of the most energy-intensive companies, not the consumer, not the vast majority of companies that require energy, but the most energy-intensive users may need to decide whether to switch off their power for some time. If that's the very worst kind of winter, and the issue there is about supply for this year and for this winter -

ANDREW MARR: It's about slack in the system -

ALAN JOHNSON: - there's some slack in the system - yeah but there's a whole series of initiatives being taken - there's a new pipeline coming from Norway that will be on line next year, another pipeline from the Netherlands, more storage capacity -

ANDREW MARR: So for this winter, this could be a particularly difficult winter, ... where we are -

ALAN JOHNSON: A particularly difficult winter, if it's the worst kind of winter, the one in 50 winter, it could be difficult for some energy-intensive users, some of the big ... users.

ANDREW MARR: But industry, not domestic.

ALAN JOHNSON: Not domestic at all.

ANDREW MARR: Right. You're a union man, the unions were particularly jumpy, some would say stroppy, over the last couple of weeks running up to the conference, during conference, do you take seriously talk, certainly one of the unions, that there could be massive strikes - one chap was even talking about 1926 - over the pensions issue and of course over some of the reform issues too.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well I take seriously the fact that many unions are concerned about many issues but, you know, there's nothing new in that. No there won't be that level of strikes. This year we've had the fewest disputes ever since records began. You know, that's just not going to happen.

There's an issue about public sector pensions where we believe, that in order to ensure that these demographic changes can be tackled and coped with, that the retirement age for civil servants and for people in the public sector ought to go from 60 to 65 - we're negotiating about that. I think we'll come to a successful conclusion.

ANDREW MARR: Right, okay. Alan Johnson, future deputy leader, possibly leader of the Labour Party - I read all over the place - thank you very much indeed.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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