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UK considers return to nuclear power

THE government has launched a review of the country's energy needs that may open the door to a nuclear-industry revival. In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) at the end of November, prime minister Tony Blair said that although some of the country's future energy needs will be supplied by renewables, other power sources – possibly including nuclear – would be needed.

"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," said Blair. "Some of this will be replaced by renewables, but not all of it can."

The review, which will be led by energy minister Malcolm Wicks, will measure the UK's progress against its medium- and long-term goals, set out two years ago in the Energy White Paper. And it "will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations", Blair told the CBI. A decision on nuclear is expected by the summer.

Although it did not rule out a return to nuclear, the Energy White Paper concluded that the costs of returning to nuclear power were uncertain and that renewables, such as wind and solar, combined with greater energy efficiency, could suffice. However, high oil and gas prices, concerns over energy security and global warming have forced the government to reopen the nuclear debate. In addition, with all but one of the UK's nuclear plants scheduled to close by 2023, a large chunk of carbon-free generating capacity is set steadily to disappear.

Blair, who is said to believe that building more nuclear power stations is the only way to meet energy needs and stick to the climate-change targets, said recent changes in energy markets were inevitably leading to changes in energy policy in many countries. "Around the world, you can sense feverish re-thinking. Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency. I have no doubt where policy is heading, here, in the US, across the emerging economies of the world. I believe there will be a binding international agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012 that will include all major economies. The future is clean energy. And nations will look to diversify out of energy dependence on one source."

Wicks said that along with nuclear power, his review will consider renewables, coal, gas and new technologies, as well as energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions from transport.

Keith Parker, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), says "nuclear power provides reliable, large-scale electricity generation at stable prices and should continue to form part of the nation's solution to problems of energy security and climate change." He adds that the NIA is "encouraged" that the review should be concluded by the middle of the year because the planning for the looming shortfall in generating capacity requires "urgent attention".

Not everyone was enthusiastic. Greenpeace disrupted Blair's speech by unfurling a banner and dropping leaflets, saying: "Nuclear: Wrong Answer". Stephen Tindale, director of Greenpeace UK, says nuclear power is "costly, dangerous and a terrorist target". He also questions the environmental benefits of nuclear energy, claiming that even if the UK replaced all 23 of its operating reactors, the country would save only 10% of its carbon emissions. "The real solution to climate change and energy security is a mix of efficient, safe and clean energy technologies such as wind, wave and solar. Plus we need to stop wasting energy by generating it closer to where it is consumed."

Meanwhile, there are signs that the public is becoming less hostile to nuclear power as awareness of potential energy shortages grows. A survey carried out for the NIA shows that most (59%) now expect nuclear energy to be part of the future mix of energy sources. The organisation claims the survey "shows significant improvements in support for building new nuclear power stations to replace those about to be decommissioned", with some 41% now supporting this, up from 35% in December 2004.

A separate survey by Deloitte found that the majority (62%) of the UK population would support an energy policy that combines increased renewable-energy technologies with cautious nuclear re-build. However, Deloitte says only 36% of people "support the use of nuclear technology itself, suggesting that support for nuclear increases significantly when there is some reassurance that it would not be in place of renewable sources, such as wind, wave, solar or biomass".

Carl Hughes, UK head of energy at Deloitte, says there appears to be "a misconception that nuclear and renewables are an 'either or' option. In reality, the UK's future energy policy is likely to combine a diverse range of power-generation sources in order to best address concerns surrounding energy security, the environment and the cost of generation."

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