At the launch of the white paper, on 24 February, secretary of state for trade and industry Patricia Hewitt explained the government’s position on nuclear power. “If we had done what some wanted – a new programme of nuclear build – it would have destroyed the incentive for energy efficiency,” she said, adding: “But we don’t rule it out for the future.” The white paper states: “Before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations, there would need to be the fullest public consultation and the publication of a white paper setting out the government’s proposals.” The white paper outlines the government’s reasons for the rejection of nuclear power in the near term: “While nuclear power is currently an important source of carbon free electricity, the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity and there are also important issues for nuclear waste to be resolved.” Energy minister Brian Wilson, a longtime supporter of the nuclear industry, had previously been quoted as saying that without nuclear power the UK would not meet its carbon reduction targets. Asked whether his opinion had changed, he said it had not but that he thought the emphasis on energy efficiency and renewables was absolutely right. He pointed out that “there is no moratorium on new nuclear build but someone has to want to do it. There’s not exactly a queue forming at the door.” At the heart of the white paper, titled “Our energy future – creating a low carbon economy”, is the aim of achieving a reduction of 60% from current levels in carbon dioxide emissions by about 2050.

The nuclear lobby has long argued that even far less ambitious targets cannot be achieved without nuclear power. However, according to the white paper, nuclear would only be considered when it becomes clear that these targets are not going to be met without nuclear. It states: “We do not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets.” On the way to achieving the 2050 emissions target, by 2020 some 15-25 million tonnes of carbon (MtC) will have to be cut from the current forecast for 2020 of 135MtC. This reduction could be achieved by: energy efficiency in households (4-6MtC); energy efficiency in industry, commerce and the public sector (4-6MtC); transport – continuing voluntary agreements on vehicles and use of biofuels for road transport (2-4MtC); increasing renewables (3-5MtC); EU carbon trading scheme (2-4MtC).

The nuclear option might only be reconsidered if these reduction targets prove to be unattainable. In the meantime, most of the country’s nuclear capacity, which presently accounts for 23% of the UK’s energy mix, will be going offline – under current plans, only Sizewell B will be in operation after 2023. The nuclear industry therefore has the task of demonstrating that it is economically viable as a source of carbon-free electricity, while closing down most of its plants and maintaining a sufficient level of trained engineers to implement a new nuclear build, should it happen.