UK consultation puts nuclear in the spotlight

3 August 2002

The UK's commitment to reduce CO2 emissions will be compromised if its 20% nuclear capacity is not replaced by another CO2-neutral source.

Back in March, the UK's Policy Implementation Unit (PIU) produced a report that said that the nuclear option should be kept open, but did not advocate building new reactors in the UK to replace those that will close down over the next 20 years. The UK government has opened consultation in advance of a White Paper on energy supply planned for the end of this year.

The DTI laid out the issues in its consultation document, asking a series of fundamental questions:

• How confident are we that other low carbon options will be reliably available, in sufficient time and sufficient quantity, to ensure that we can reduce carbon emissions as most existing nuclear stations close over the next 20 years?

• What steps would be necessary to keep open the nuclear option?

• What minimum lead times should we realistically assume in keeping options open for the future?

• To what extent should industry's costs be internalised?

• What regulatory or other changes might be desirable to reduce risk and uncertainty for investors?

• What would be the costs and the consequent impacts on prices and on carbon emissions?

The UK regulator reminded the DTI about limitations of the planning process, by reference to the planning period for Sizewell B. In energy-related forecasting, it is hard to anticipate changes in fuel supply, demand and prices or to predict technological progress and developments in infrastructure. All of these are capable of significant change even in the short term.

Energy consultant David White asked whether the UK's Kyoto commitments could be achieved without new nuclear stations. To progress to the 2020 or 2050 targets without replacing nuclear capacity assumes 30% of the UK's power can be produced economically in some other CO2-free way. He pointed out that new technologies were unlikely to come on stream in time, not least because low electricity prices in the UK market were a barrier to development. Today's power prices are still too low to stimulate new investment in clean and efficient systems, he said.

The nuclear lobby was supported by Energywatch, the consumer organisation for gas and electricity customers. In its submission to a government Select Committee considering security of supply, the organisation said: "If we are serious about CO2 reduction and supply security, nuclear power must be on the agenda along with all other options. We recognise the concern people have regarding safe disposal of nuclear waste and it is vital that efforts continue to be made to resolve this issue. We also need to accept that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with whatever the outcome of this review." Energywatch said educating the public would be a prerequisite to any new programme.

Clear and unequivocal attention must be given to developing a public relations strategy to ensure that people are aware of the available options and their consequences.

Further support for the industry came from Ken Jackson, leader of the AEEU union, which includes many energy industry workers. According to the Guardian, he said that although he supported renewable energy it could not fill the vacuum left by nuclear closures quickly enough.

Grudging acceptance of some nuclear generation came from surprising quarters. In its statement to the Select Committee, Greenpeace restated its firm opposition to nuclear, saying: "It has been widely reported that the Government sees a revival of nuclear power as part of the answer to climate change. This would be economically irrational: both energy efficiency and renewable energy generation provide more cost-effective ways of reducing carbon emissions. However, this is not the main reason why Greenpeace opposes nuclear power. Nuclear generation inevitably involves routine and accidental release of radioactivity into the environment, and the generation of radioactive waste." It also said that meeting Kyoto targets: "Will almost certainly require CO2 cuts of greater than 60 % by 2050. Anything else would be morally indefensible." In the face of questions from the committee, however, Greenpeace director Stephen Tindale admitted that some units might be retained in the short term. Asked whether Greenpeace would agree to using nuclear plant to the end of its useful life, Tindale said: "No, we would not. Well, we would argue that its useful life has already ended." Pressed on whether: "Despite the fact that it has made most of its carbon contribution and the vast bulk of the nuclear waste has been generated, you would not be willing to take a marginal risk?"

Tindale said: "The Magnox stations, to be absolutely clear, should be closed down immediately because they are operating beyond the end of their design life and we do not believe it is safe to continue operating them and they are producing large quantities of nuclear waste. The AGRs and the PWRs should be closed down soon, but not necessarily immediately."

In speaking to the IMechE Forum, BNFL's Sue Ion seemed almost as equivocal about new nuclear development. "New technologies in the nuclear sector cannot be sustained by a single company or country," she said. "It's just too expensive and the timescale is too long."

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