Old nuclear needed for Scotland's renewable future

03 July 2009

There is no room for new nuclear plants in Scotland's future energy scene - but existing nuclear plants will need life extensions to allow other generation options to catch up, according to a report by a Scottish parliamentary committee.

The 126-page report, Determining and Delivering on Scotland's Energy Future, has been published by the Scottish Parliament's Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee and is the outcome of 12 months of consultations and enquiries. As well as attempting to define what Scotland's energy future will look like, the report also maps out a route for the country's devolved government to meet its carbon emissions targets while balancing concerns about prices, security of supply and the environment.

Amongst its recommendations are major investments in renewable and clean coal energy technology, but not nuclear: "Scotland does not need a new generation of nuclear power stations to be constructed," says the report. Instead, the committee calls for "markedly" increased investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, cleaner renewable or fossil-fuel fired thermal plants, and if necessary, the construction of a new generation of larger fossil-fuel fired plants with future carbon capture technologies.

Most of Scotland's baseload electricity generation currently comes from conventional coal-fired plants and its two nuclear power stations, Hunterston B and Torness. However, scheduled closures of fossil and nuclear plants would see the Scottish electricity system facing a loss of 1152 MWe of generating capacity by 2015, and a further 2050 MWe by 2023.

Even after all targets for renewables are met in 2020, around 70% of primary energy needs in Scotland will still come from oil and gas. However, the report acknowledges that some of the options it wants to use, such as marine renewables or cleaner coal-fired power stations equipped with carbon capture and storage, "are not yet proven and will take some time to develop and will not be fully realised before some of the current generating stock is due to retire." That is where nuclear comes in: "there will be a need to extend the operating lifetimes of the current generation of nuclear power stations in Scotland to allow time for the transition to a new electricity system." Hunterston B has already been granted a life extension from its original planned 2011 shutdown date, allowing it to operate to 2016, while Torness is scheduled for closure in 2023 although both plants could in theory operate beyond those dates. Indeed, operator British Energy has publicly talked about the possibility of phased life extensions up to 2040 for the Torness plant.  

Scotland gained devolution in 1998, giving the parliament based at Holyrood in Edinburgh powers to govern itself on matters that are not explicitly reserved by the UK's Westminster parliament, including planning issues affecting large-scale projects such as power stations. At a time when nuclear new build is being actively pursued for the UK by Westminster, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Scottish government remains implacably opposed to the prospect of building new nuclear plants, despite the contribution made to the country's electricity and employment sectors from the existing plants.