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United Kingdom

Government gears up to build nuclear -- Britain's energy review

Should the UK go nuclear or not? The question has dominated the news, opinion and letters pages of the country's press and received wide television and radio coverage since Prime Minister Tony Blair in late November announced a government review of energy policy.

The review, which started formal consultations around the turn of the year, comes not long after the last energy review in 2002, which resulted in Britain's 2003 Energy White Paper. It identified energy efficiency and renewables as key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring security of supply. Since then increasing reliance on imports of gas and a rise in emissions as generators switch to coal in response to rising gas prices, has knocked the government's climate change policy goals off. The new review will look at what measures are needed for the UK to reach its emissions reduction targets and secure the country's energy needs.

"It will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations," said Blair. Speaking at a Confederation of British Industry conference, a mere stone's throw from the head office of the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) he said: "By around 2020, the UK is likely to have seen decommissioning of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30% of today's electricity supply. Some of this will be replaced by renewables, but not all of it can."

But energy minister Malcolm Wicks who is to head the cross-departmental review team stresses that they will consider all energy options. "This is a wide-ranging energy review and is not a nuclear review," he says. Its main thrust is to assess progress against four key goals from the 2003 White Paper: to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050, to maintain reliability of energy supplies, to promote competitive energy markets, and to ensure every home is adequately and affordably heated.

"Things have changed since 2003, so the time is right to be reviewing energy policy. The reality is that we are now competing for energy supplies with countries like India and China," says Wicks. Currently, the UK gets 19% of its electricity from nuclear, 40% from gas, 33% from coal, 4% from renewables, with the remainder from oil and imports.

Urgent timetable

There is no single solution, Wicks says. "It is not a choice of nuclear versus renewables." The economics of nuclear, its safety and radioactive waste still need to be addressed, he says and admits that governments have dodged the issue of what to do with nuclear waste for too long. "Now we have to make decisions quickly because we have an urgent timetable. By next summer we expect to present the prime minister with judgements about the future of energy policy."

The country is divided on the nuclear issue, with environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth against, and business and electricity utilities largely in favour. Politicians are likewise divided, but not always along party lines: the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party oppose nuclear, the Conservatives could be expected to be generally supportive, but the Labour government is likely to find itself split by the issue. Much of the press and media, however, accept that nuclear could be a necessary evil. Most appear to swallow the argument that renewables will not contribute significantly to the UK's future energy needs, leaving it largely to environmental groups to champion renewables' cause on TV and in the press.

BWEA calls on the government to put wind and renewables at the heart of the review and establish a firm commitment to source 20% of electricity from renewables by 2020. "This review must be as much about delivering the potential of renewables as it is about deciding on new nuclear," says the BWEA's Marcus Rand.

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