UK parliamentary committee finds nuclear too late

9 May 2006

The UK’s parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee report, Keeping the lights on: nuclear, renewables, and climate change, concludes that a major generation gap that will affect the country in the coming decade will be filled by a combination of an extensive programme of new gas-fired power stations, supplemented by a significant growth in renewables.

Significantly, the report further concludes that nuclear will not be a viable option to fill the generation gap or contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions until at least 2016, by which time it is likely that a quarter of the existing generating capacity in the UK will need to be replaced, between 15 and 20 GW. After 2016 there are a number of alternative options, of which nuclear is only one.

Tim Yeo, the committee chairman, commented: “The reality is that many more gas-fired power stations will be needed by 2016 to keep the lights on – whether we like it or not. The real issue is whether the current liberalised market and policy framework will promote sufficient investment in lower-carbon electricity generation to come on stream after 2016 to maintain a downward path in carbon emissions.”

The report calls for the government to establish a long-term framework in which investment flows to low-carbon technologies, suggesting the government could provide a range of incentives.

The report further suggests that a decision to support a major programme of nuclear new build must also take account of the impacts on investment in other areas, with any public subsidies weighed against the substantial progress alternatives could achieve with similar subsidies, notably carbon capture and storage technologies.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks, speaking on BBC Radio Five Live, said the committee had exaggerated the risks of an energy gap adding: “I think in favour of nuclear is the scientific evidence that nuclear is a cleaner form of energy, but we’ve got to look at the economics, and then we’ve got to weigh all these things before we make our recommendation to the prime minister and the government.”

Commenting on the report Liberal Democrat energy spokesman and committee member David Howarth said: “Many of those claiming that nuclear power is cheap are severely underestimating the market rate of return required for a nuclear project. Measures from the government to reduce the financial risks for companies often amount to hidden subsidies for the nuclear industry. This report puts pay to the lie that nuclear can ever succeed without heavy state involvement.”

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