Energy minister throws down the gauntlet

9 December 2004

Speaking at the Energy Choices meeting, held on 2 December and jointly organised by the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) and the British Nuclear Energy Society (BNES), the new UK minister for energy and e-commerce, Mike O’Brien, said: “At the moment there isn’t a commercial proposition on the table. If anyone wants to come up with some commercial proposition that they can really seriously deliver, we’ll talk to you.” Referring to the February 2003 energy white paper, which stated that a new build decision would be preceded by the “fullest public consultation and the publication of a white paper,” he commented: “We will have a white paper if something serious is on the table, but at the moment it’s not.”

O’Brien implied that new nuclear build would only be considered if the UK’s carbon emissions targets were not being met. “The government recognises that nuclear power is an important source of carbon free electricity and the possibility of new nuclear build in the future is not ruled out. If needed, we will be prepared to look at it,” he said.

Although the 2003 energy white paper clearly stated that the government does not “propose to support new nuclear build now,” the industry has recently been encouraged by recent favourable media coverage. Indeed, before O’Brien addressed the meeting, the two chairmen both commented on a perceived upturn for the UK nuclear industry.

Tony Cooper — who recently resigned as chairman of the NIA to take up a position as a non-executive director on the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority board — commented on the NIA reaching the milestone of signing its 100th affiliated company. “The NIA, which had something of the order of 65 affiliated companies not very long ago, yesterday signed up its 100th affiliated company and today its 101st. That is a huge change and it is a measure of the sea change that is taking place as far as the nuclear industry is concerned right across the world.”

Sue Ion, BNFL executive director of technology and president of the BNES, said: “I think there’s a new bounce in the feet of the people in the industry and we can look forward hopefully to next year and the years beyond to see nuclear energy in this country take a step forward into the future.”

However, any buoyant mood was tempered by O’Brien’s assertion that the country’s future electricity demand could be met by developing infrastructure for importing gas and electricity — and on renewables. “Wind energy currently offers, in the next 5-8 years, the best and most cost effective potential for expansion in the short- to medium-term,” he claimed. “It is a known technology; it is a technology which we know can produce the energy that we need; and it is one that we are determined to pursue in the coming few years.”


If anyone wants to come up with some commercial proposition that they can really seriously deliver, we’ll talk to you

The relatively long lead time for a new nuclear plant effectively ruled it out of any near-term strategy and, like many politicians, O’Brien appeared to focus primarily on the short term. “Frankly, if we decided today, at this moment, that we were going to even look at the nuclear option, we’d be talking eight or ten years before we’d have a new reactor on stream.” The government’s 2010 carbon emission targets could therefore not be met by new nuclear. Rather it will be renewables, particularly wind, that will “be the key focus the government will have to concentrate on in the coming five years or so, and indeed probably longer than that.”

As stated in the white paper, the UK nuclear industry would have to content itself with a commitment to “keep the option open” — though what exactly this means remains a matter of debate. Although O’Brien concluded with a glimmer of hope, noting: “If the situation in terms of nuclear changes during the next few years, we’ve got an open mind about looking at that,” he added: “At the moment I’m not seeing that happening. As much as there is a lot of commitment by individuals to the concept, frankly at this point it does not look an economic proposition.”

Credit: nia
UK energy minister Mike O'Brien addresses the Energy Choices meeting on 2 December 2004. Seated (from left): Tony Cooper (former NIA chairman), Sue Ion (president of the BNES), Bill Tynan (chairman of the All-Party Group on Nuclear Energy)

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