Nuclear power is 'vital' to Britain

10 January 2008

New nuclear power is at the heart of the UK government's low carbon energy white paper. Private companies were invited today to propose plans to build new reactors which the government said were low-carbon, affordable, dependable and safe. 

The official new policy was announced by business and enterprise minister John Hutton: "Set against the challenges of climate change and security of supply, the evidence in support of new nuclear power stations is compelling... I therefore invite energy companies to bring forward plans to build and operate new nuclear power stations."

The minister said that nuclear power could be one aspect of an energy mix, and meeting the climate change challenge would require the full implementation of a low carbon strategy that incorporates nuclear energy alongside other low-carbon technologies.

The decision was made after an extended public consultation necessary after previous governments allowed nuclear policy to deteriorate. The UK government stated clearly and without caveat that nuclear power is low-carbon, affordable, dependable and safe.

The country faces an energy gap around 2020 when coal and nuclear power stations accounting for about 30-35 GWe - about one third of generation - must retire. The UK government's response to this and climate change concerns is an Energy Bill which Hutton said would "drive a greater deployment of renewables and enable investment in carbon capture and storage and offshore gas infrastructure. These will help build our energy security, reduce emissions and place the UK at the forefront in the development of low carbon energy technology."  

It will also see the government take active steps to "open up the way the way" to the construction of new nuclear power stations. However, the government was careful to stress "it will be for energy companies to fund, develop and build new nuclear power stations in the UK, including meeting the full costs of decommissioning and their full share of waste management costs."

The white paper states that the costs of new nuclear power would be attractive to power companies and investors. Furthermore the cost of carbon dioxide abatement with nuclar power is £
0.3 ($0.6) per tonne, compared with the next cheapest, onshore wind, at £50 ($98) per tonne.

A planning process lasting five-and-a-half years would now begin under the announced measures, with construction on the first new reactor starting in mid-2013. The estimated power generation cost can be calculated from the white paper to be 3.64p (7.13c) per kWh. Capital cost assumptions are £1250 ($2450) per MWh.

Future steps

Radioactive waste management policy is developing on a separate track, with waste from new plants likely to be stored deep underground in a single national repository. Hutton announced that
 a white paper planned for the spring would set out a framework for implementing underground storage.

Private nuclear generators would pay into a special fund to cover the cost of this and a consultation is to be carried out starting February or March setting out the proposed financial arrangements. A new body, the Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board, will advise government on such matters.

In March the government will call for justification applications required under EU law to establish that any nuclear facility would bring benefits that outweigh any possible health detriment.

Around the same time a consultation is planned on Strategic Siting Assessment criteria to establish a framework for assessing proposed nuclear sites, and Generic Design Assessment of reactor designs will enter the next stage.

Hutton said that the UK would bepressing other countries to strengthen the EU Emissions TradingScheme so that investors would have more confidence in a strong carbon price signal as an incentive to all low-carbon technologies.

The Conservative opposition partyresponded by saying that its position appeared similar to thatjust announced by Hutton and that potential nuclear power plant owners could be confident of a stable investment climate under a Conservative government.

A Liberal party spokesperson said thathe could not tell if nuclear energy was "a white elephant or a redherring" and that he didn't understand what exactly the minister had just announced. The minister responded that he was saddened the Liberal spokesperson didn't understand and offered to send him a copy ofthe announcement with more bold type.