Nuclear dawn

The UK is to pursue the nuclear option for its future generation, but what barriers still stand in the way?

Nuclear dawn

When the UK announced in early January that it was following fellow European nations France and Finland down the nuclear energy trail, it came as no real surprise.

Since the government's Energy White Paper last year, the possibility of a green light for a new nuclear programme has been on the cards. "The government believes it is in the public interest that new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country's future energy mix alongside other low-carbon sources," said Prime Minister Gordon Brown, "and that it would be in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations and that the government should take active steps to open up the way to the construction of new nuclear power stations.

"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."

In announcing the decision to the House of Commons, business secretary John Hutton said a continuing role for nuclear power would contribute to the diversity of the UK's energy supplies and help meet emissions reduction targets.

"Every new nuclear power station will save the same amount of carbon emissions that are generated from around one million households. The entire lifecycle emissions of nuclear - that's from uranium mining through to waste management - are only between two and six per cent of those from gas for every unit of electricity generated. Nuclear power will reduce the costs of meeting our energy goals.

"Analysis of future gas and carbon price scenarios shows nuclear is affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions. Our energy suppliers recognise this, and that - in a world of carbon prices and high fossil fuel prices - nuclear power makes commercial sense.

"I do not intend to set some sort of artificial cap on the proportion of electricity the UK should be able to generate either from nuclear power or from any other source of low-carbon energy. That would not be consistent with our long-term national interest, and, given that nuclear power is a tried and tested, safe and secure form of low carbon technology, it would be wrong in principle to rule it out now from playing any role in the UK's energy future."

Hutton said he hoped the first new nuclear power station would be built well before 2020, adding that the Planning Bill would improve the speed and efficiency of the planning system for nationally significant infrastructure, including new nuclear power stations, while giving local people a greater opportunity to have their say.

Keith Bradley, UK regional vice president for Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) one of the four companies vying to build the power plants, said that the announcement could allow AECL to provide a "huge boost" to UK manufacturing.

"We believe that this is the right decision if the UK is to meet its targets on climate change and security of supply. We have submitted our new build design for approval in the UK and have conducted discussions with potential partners.

"Our plans would provide a huge potential boost to UK manufacturing and we have a proven track record in completing nuclear new builds ahead of schedule and on or under budget."

Skilled Labour

There have been several concerns raised about the proliferation of nuclear power in the UK, primarily regarding the skill shortage and how to deal with nuclear waste. Gary Smith, national officer of the GMB union said: "We welcome the announcement on new build power stations. We now need to focus on moving forward so we can maximise the opportunities that new build will present for manufacturing and construction in the UK. Plans need to be developed to ensure there is sufficient skilled labour to undertake new build."

Unite national officer Dougie Rooney said: "The government has consulted the union fully and comprehensively on this issue and we pledge to support it in any challenge that may come from Greenpeace.

"We would like to see the government set out a bolder vision with clear deadlines to enable companies to plan for new nuclear reactors."

Nuclear waste

On the subject of nuclear waste, Hutton said that, during last year's consultation, some people had argued for a permanent solution for existing nuclear waste before committing to creating new waste.

"Having fully considered the evidence, our conclusion is that geological disposal is both technically possible and the right approach for managing existing and new, higher-activity waste. It will be many years before a disposal facility is built. But we are satisfied that interim storage will hold waste from existing and any new power stations safely and securely for as long as is necessary.

"In addition, before development consents for new nuclear power stations are granted, the government will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist or will exist to manage and dispose of the waste they will produce."

John Sauven, Greenpeace executive director, added: "When you look closely at what Hutton said, the radioactive waste problem is still the roadblock to new nuclear power.

"He said the government would only give the go-ahead to new nuclear power stations if the waste problem can be solved. Labour would like us all to think that they are close to finding that solution but in reality they are no closer to finding it than Margaret Thatcher was. When you look behind the smoke and mirrors of this announcement you very quickly see this government still has no idea what it's doing. Its energy policy is still a shambles."

The government is to publish its proposals on storing nuclear waste underground in a white Paper later this year. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told parliament in a written statement: "The government view is that the consultation responses indicate support for managing higher activity radioactive waste in the long term through geological disposal."

The government will invite local communities to volunteer to host the underground sites, with a benefits package in return. The government's document published after consultations last year says: "A call for communities to express an interest will come later, once the responses to the consultation have been assessed and government has published the White Paper."

Previous proposals for 'nuclear waste dumps' have sparked huge local protests - something ministers are seeking to avoid by asking communities to volunteer to host sites. Ministers are also understood to be considering the option of eventually creating an undersea storage system, possibly off the Cumbrian coast.

"The government continues to see geological disposal as the way forward for the long-term manage--ment of higher activity radioactive waste," Benn said.  Such materials would come not only from the proposed
new generation of nuclear power stations but also from medical, military and academic sources.

Business Secretary John Hutton stressed, in a statement to MPs, that energy companies would bear the full cost of eventually decommissioning each new station at the end of its life and meet "each operator's full share of waste management costs".

Environmental group Greenpeace said the only mooted site to bury waste underground was Cumbria. "The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, the government's expert advisers on dealing with nuclear waste, ruled out the possibility of burying nuclear waste under the sea in 2006. They came to this conclusion because of the huge environmental risks it posed, the huge problems it could cause to future generations and because it could breach international law," a spokesman said.

"Professor David Smythe, who served on the Geological Review Panel of British Nuclear Fuels and worked with Nirex, the government's former nuclear waste disposal body, said last year that the geology of the Cumbrian coast made it an unsuitable place to put waste in the long term.

"He described any plan to store waste there as 'crazy' and cited findings from a previous inquiry into the site ten years ago, showing it might be prone to flooding or other disturbances.

"The government's nuclear policy looks like a dog's breakfast. Ministers are proposing to store highly radioactive waste in the ground, but the only area so far mooted is Cumbria, which the government's own advisors have already ruled out on safety grounds. You have to wonder what on earth is going on in Whitehall."

Green backlash

The environmental groups lined up to take a shot at the proposals, but the government's former chief scientific adviser has accused green activists of putting the fight against climate change at risk by wanting to take society back to the 17th century.

Sir David King, who is credited with convincing Tony Blair of the urgency of global warming, told the Guardian newspaper that tackling the problem without using technological solutions - including nuclear power - was hopeless.

He said: "There is a suspicion - and I have that suspicion myself - that a large number of people who label themselves 'green' are actually keen to take us back to the 18th or even the 17th century.

"[Their argument is] 'Let's get away from all the technological gizmos and developments of the 20th century', and I think that is utter hopelessness."

The answer to climate change, he said, lies in embracing technology and technological solutions, not rejecting them.

Sir David, who stepped down as chief scientific adviser to the government last month after seven years in the post, argued that nuclear power was essential to reducing Britain's carbon emissions, saying the dangers of climate change were far worse than those posed by new reactors.

Greenpeace's Sauven said: "We need science to get us out of the climate change hole we're in. That's why Greenpeace wants to see research funding piled into the cutting-edge low-carbon technologies that can deliver deep emissions cuts in the very short time frame we're facing.

"We're talking about technical solutions that can also be safely spread to every country in the world, no matter how unstable. Nuclear power isn't that technology.

"Back in the 1950s people like Sir David told us nuclear was the answer to all our problems, but it wasn't then and it isn't now. We're trying to drag people with his 1950s mentality into the 21st century but it's proving hard."

Going alone

Despite the UK government's decision, one country, Scotland, has counted itself out of the plan. John Swinney, the Scottish government's Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, said: "John Hutton knows the strength of feeling in Scotland against developing unwanted and unnecessary new nuclear power stations.

"The UK Energy Bill provisions on nuclear power do not extend to Scotland, which is a great success for the Scottish government.

"New statistics show that Scotland in 2006 supplied 92.5 per cent of its energy needs from fossil fuels, renewables and pumped hydro storage.

"The risks and uncertainties of new nuclear power, in terms of waste disposal, decommissioning, security and health concerns, or cost, are obviously far too great."

Hutton told a news conference that he believed the Scottish Government was making a "mistake" by ruling out new nuclear power stations north of the border and it was "entirely possible" that Scottish consumers would rely on electricity generated in England in the future.

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