Following extensive consultation, the UK government has reaffirmed its “preliminary view” that it is in the public interest to keep the nuclear option open.

Making the announcement on 10 January, energy secretary John Hutton told parliament: “Giving the go ahead today that new nuclear power should play a role in providing the UK with clean, secure and affordable energy is in our country’s vital long-term interest.”

Hutton said the government should “positively embrace the opportunity of delivering this important part of our energy policy,” adding: “I therefore invite energy companies to bring forward plans to build and operate new nuclear power stations.”

Immediately following the announcement, the government’s Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform published its white paper, titled Meeting the Energy Challenge – A White Paper on Nuclear Power, which states: “It will be for energy companies to fund, develop and build new nuclear power stations in the UK, including meeting the full costs of decommissioning and their full share of waste management costs.” In addition, plans for, and financing of, waste management should proceed on the basis that spent fuel would not be reprocessed.

The white paper sets out a number of “facilitative actions” that the government will take in order to “reduce uncertainties in the pre-construction period through improvements to the regulatory and planning processes.” These include:

  • Streamlining the planning system for major electricity generating stations in England and Wales to ensure that already-debated policy and regulatory issues are not reopened at a local level.
  • Running a strategic siting assessment (SSA) process to develop criteria for determining the suitability of sites for new nuclear power stations. This would enable the planning process to focus on the proposals rather than debate whether there are other more suitable sites.
  • Limiting the need to consider high-level environmental impacts of nuclear power stations during the planning process by conducting a strategic environmental assessment as part of the SSA.
  • Running a process of justification to test whether the economic, social or other benefits of specific new nuclear power technologies outweigh any health detriments.
  • Assisting the nuclear regulators to pursue a generic design assessment process, limiting the need to discuss reactor design issues in depth during the site-specific licensing process.
  • Pushing for a strengthening of the Emissions Trading Scheme to give investors confidence in the long-term carbon price.

An energy bill outlining measures to address climate change and security of supply issues, is due to be published soon. Details of the financing of back end costs are to be included in this bill.

The Conservative main opposition party gave its backing to the government’s plans for new nuclear, despite having referred to nuclear as a “last resort” during its own energy review. However, such ambivalence towards new nuclear was absent during shadow secretary for business, enterprise & regulatory reform Alan Duncan’s response to Hutton’s announcement. “From what the secretary of state has just said, our position is, by and large, similar to the government’s,” Duncan said.

Should business wish to invest in new nuclear on the basis that there would be no subsidy, Duncan commented, then “they should be free to do so – and they should know that the investment climate will remain stable under any Conservative government.”

In contrast, Liberal Democrat shadow environment secretary Steve Webb criticised support for new nuclear. “This is a flawed decision based on a sham consultation – we all know that ministers made up their minds long ago,” he said.