Azara Blog: Nuclear power back on the agenda in the UK

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Date published: 2005/05/14

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Alan Johnson, the new trade and industry secretary, raised the prospect of an early a commitment to build a new generation of nuclear power stations as he set a shorter than expected deadline for the government to complete a review of energy policy.

While stressing that no decision had yet been taken, Mr Johnson told the Financial Times the government would examine its options "some time this year". A verdict would have to be reached "in plenty of time" to replace Britain's ageing fleet of nuclear stations, all but one of which will have reached the end of their lives by 2023.

During the general election campaign ministers refused to be drawn on the issue of a new tranche of reactors. But days after victory, Tony Blair acknowledged that a decision would need to be taken at some point in this parliament.

Outlining a case for new nuclear stations, Mr Johnson said the energy market had "moved significantly" since the white paper of 2003, which had left the door open to a role for nuclear power. The paper had said priority should be given to developing renewable energy, such as wind and wave power, to meet ambitious targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Ministers conceded this year these targets would be missed without a change of policy.

Mr Johnson said the government could decide the loss of the 20 per cent of electricity provided by nuclear's "clean fuel . . . can't be made up by renewables". "If we were to come to the conclusion that we weren't making any progress [without new nuclear], we have to make that decision in plenty of time [the stations] have a 10 year lead-in," he said.

The Department of Trade and Industry would move the discussion forward by issuing a review of where we stand, "some time this year", Mr Johnson said.

The new trade and industry secretary did not commit himself to a new tranche of nuclear power stations. But his comments suggest he is more supportive than Patricia Hewitt, his predecessor. Any move would still trigger a cabinet row. But Mr Blair has signalled he may be losing patience with the case that renewable energy is the answer to climate change.

This is not really a surprise, Blair made it pretty obvious during the election campaign that he was interested in nuclear power. The nuclear industry has never shown that it can produce power at a reasonable price, when the full life-cycle costs are included. Of course the Blair generation can do what previous generation has done, and let the next generation (and on into the future) worry about paying for the clean up. Well, so-called renewable energy sources will also no doubt end up with huge unforseen costs in the future, it's just that there is not enough experience with these yet on an industrial scale to know what these costs will be.

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