briefing note says decision on nuclear is urgent
Finding a way to revive nuclear power is one of the first tasks that Britain's Labour government has set itself after a third consecutive election win in May. Driving the focus on a new nuclear policy are government fears that the UK cannot reach its carbon reduction targets through energy conservation, energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy to replace fossil fuel generation.
Days after the election, a briefing note by a high-ranking official for incoming cabinet minister Alan Johnson at the new Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry (DPEI) calls for action to prevent a decline in nuclear generating capacity. Johnson replaces Patricia Hewitt, a staunch wind power supporter and anti-nuclear politician who headed the department in its former incarnation as the Department of Trade and Industry.
The briefing note, from Joan MacNaughton, director-general of energy policy at the DPEI, was leaked to major Sunday newspapers. She warns that the UK is set to fall short of its goal to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2010. Two reasons are "falling nuclear generation" as old power stations close and the failure of renewable energy to meet expectations of supplying 10% of electricity by 2010. MacNaughton says that 7% to 8% from renewables is more likely. Without a major contribution from low carbon sources of generation, Britain's longer term aim of a 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 looks even more remote.
Twelve nuclear stations currently supply 22% of Britain's power. But as they reach the end of their lives over the next 20 years, the country's reliance on imported gas is set to rocket. According to government figures, 70% of the UK's electricity will come from gas by 2020 -- and 90% of that gas will be imported.
MacNaughton's briefing urges Johnson to act quickly if he wants to avoid a sharp fall in nuclear output because it takes some ten years to get a new nuclear plant running. She points out that a White Paper will be needed and calls for a government statement before the summer recess. She adds: "It is generally easier to push ahead on controversial issues early in a new parliament." With a sharply reduced majority in parliament and with a number of anti-nuclear Labour back-benchers, Prime Minister Tony Blair will struggle to get agreement for any nuclear ambitions he agrees to pursue.
In recent years the government has avoided taking a decision on nuclear saying it was "keeping the option open." The issue divides ministers. Blair claimed last year that he had fought "long and hard, both within the party and outside" to keep the door open for nuclear. More sceptical on nuclear are Hewitt, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and former energy minister Mike O'Brien. Now, after the move of Hewitt and O'Brien to new government posts in the prime minister's reshuffle, the main resistance is left with Beckett. Her Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is conducting a review of the government's climate change policy. But MacNaughton states: "Because Mrs Beckett opposes nuclear new build, the review has not so far considered whether nuclear should contribute to cutting emissions."
The case for nuclear has been pressed with increased urgency over the past year by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) and British Energy as well as by influential independent figures such as chief scientific advisor to the government Sir David King. The nuclear lobby is more buoyant than it has been for years. The media in north-west England reports that chairman of BNFL Gordon Campbell claimed just two weeks before the general election that "sources close to Downing Street" had told him that an announcement on new reactors could be expected "within weeks" if Labour won.
MacNaughton, however, warns the new DPEI minister that issues must be dealt with if the country is to pursue the nuclear option. These include: how it is to be financed, what kind of support is needed, how nuclear will work in the current energy market, how to resolve the problem of disposing of nuclear waste and how to win over the public.
The last of these looks set to remain a major obstacle. A poll by the Institute of Civil Engineers three months ago found that only one in four Britons back new nuclear build. Moreover, finding sites for between eight to ten nuclear power stations will make wind developers' struggles to gain planning consent for their projects look like a Sunday picnic by comparison. The last nuclear power plant to be built in Britain, Sizewell B took 15 years to develop and build after the largest public inquiry in UK history.