This year, next year, sometime, never

12 April 2005

There has been much speculation recently that the government is preparing to publish a nuclear white paper immediately after the general election, indicatively in May, which sets out the case for new build. Such a white paper would consult widely on how best to proceed – for example, key questions would focus on the nature of financing frameworks to ensure that the market could deliver new build with the minimum of central interference and, similarly, how a viable long term fund for decommissioning could be guaranteed.

If nuclear power is to have a future in the UK it will require high level political champions. The prime minister, Tony Blair, is known to be favourable but it is fair to assume that government support for new build would not be met with unanimous enthusiasm throughout parliament, across the energy and environmental sector, or among the general population. Supporting nuclear would have immense political ramifications for the government. An appropriate and well thought out justification for supporting it would therefore be essential, as would the timing of any commitment.

Assuming Labour is returned with a significant majority, what political activity might we expect to see if the government is indeed thinking more seriously about retaining nuclear in the UK’s future energy mix, and when would it act? Is June 2005 really the right time for the government to present a pro-nuclear commitment?

Consider the likelihood of the following ‘fast track’ scenario:

Blair’s Labour party comfortably wins a May 2005 general election. He then decides on a major reshuffle to realign the cabinet prior to the G8 summit and the UK’s presidency of the EU. Margaret Beckett is replaced as secretary of state for the environment by her long-serving deputy Elliott Morley, but Mike O’Brien remains as energy minister to ensure much-needed continuity in this post. Patricia Hewitt is replaced as head of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) by a senior Blair loyalist with an established political reputation who will champion the nuclear initiative as part of his brief – welcome back David Blunkett – whose first job in June 2005 is to publish a white paper committing the government to nuclear new build.

The changes may happen, but the timing seems implausible. Replacing both secretaries of state at the same time in advance of a G8 summit in which energy and environment will figure strongly is unlikely. A second, late summer reshuffle might therefore stagger the personnel changes. Furthermore, it is highly questionable whether there is a strong case for committing the country to new build this coming June anyway, and thus risk a high-profile media debate over nuclear that would curtail the post-election ‘honeymoon’ and cast a shadow over the G8.

If the government is privately starting to seriously consider a future role for nuclear it will need to retain control of the process, and to be able to justify each step along the way. It would be significantly helped in this respect if the case for nuclear to a degree made itself, and in the period of G8 presidency it has an ideal opportunity to move the nuclear agenda along, albeit still without committing to new build.

Consider the following, longer-term scenario, which allows the nuclear case to develop:

Nuclear is consistently profiled at the G8 in terms of its role as a zero emissions technology. The USA and other G8 countries support the principle of future nuclear and there is agreement between the UK and the USA to collaborate more closely on licensing. This is announced alongside a major UK-US carbon capture and storage initiative to reduce emissions from fossil fuel industries in both developed and transition economies. The UK is seen to partly deliver on its promise to bring the USA back on board in the battle against climate change, and nuclear is increasingly popularised as part of the solution, not the problem.

There is no commitment to new build but early in the summer the nuclear regulator is given the go-ahead to recruit a ‘new technologies team’ that will be tasked with pre-licensing new, Generation III+ reactor designs in the way that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is doing in the USA. This means that any future UK decision for new build will not be subject to a year’s delay post-commitment while the necessary regulatory manpower is assembled: momentum is thus maintained.

In the autumn of 2005 the government could open a formal, 12-week consultation on the key questions that would be associated with new build. This is carried out legitimately under the guise of updating their strategic information base on nuclear – the commitment that was made in the 2003 energy white paper to ‘keep the nuclear option open’. The consultation could go live earlier, during the summer months of 2005, but this is not a time typically given over to important policy consideration and as such would imply governmental indifference, and contempt for an appropriate degree of consideration and debate concerning new build.


If nuclear power is to have a future in the UK it will require high level political champions

An autumn consultation would give the government time during spring 2006 to assimilate the data and draft their strategy on new build, if required. During the summer of 2006 it would weigh up the findings of the Renewables Review and the recommendations of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). Another winter would also have passed, providing better information on the progress of gas infrastructure projects as well as on the level and stability of gas prices. British Energy should be performing well enough to ensure that any industry consortium that has developed by then is deemed viable in the long term.

By June 2006 David Blunkett (or similar) is now well on top of his/her brief at DTI so, if new build gets the go-ahead, is it announced pre- or post-summer 2006?

A June/July statement would allow the summer break to take the heat out of the announcement, and the regulator’s team should be ready to start work on reactor licensing. Autumn 2006 would, however, allow a longer consideration of CoRWM’s findings, and setting out a national, integrated nuclear energy strategy incorporating both new build and waste solutions is politically compelling.

As part of its outlining of government agenda, the Queen’s Speech in November 2006 could therefore include a commitment to an integrated nuclear energy strategy, with an accompanying commitment to restate and ring-fence existing policy commitments to renewables and energy efficiency. A similar commitment to protect the major developments in the gas industry would also be expected.

Assuming the government followed this track (which gives them the option to opt in or out of new build for another year and a half from now) how might a decision to go for new build in autumn 2006 affect the next general election?

If the reactor pre-licensing process was completed by late 2008, with an overlapping, public enquiry on a new build site having been actioned in parallel to finish in spring 2009, the new plant’s construction could commence six to nine months prior to a 2010 general election – two very high profile events that the government would not wish to coincide.

However, the case for new build, though growing, is far from a done deal in the UK or in many other countries. Any off-site nuclear accident in the UK or abroad would kick the issue into the long grass, perhaps not for too long, depending on the location and reason for the accident, but political delay would clearly be inevitable and push new build back beyond 2010 general election territory.

After its bad experiences over the BSE crisis and the Iraq intelligence dossier the government must also be extremely measured and open in its approach to any new build considerations and any commitment that may ensue. Ultimately it must be able to justify any future decisions that it makes in a manner that engenders general public tolerance of new nuclear, if not support.

So what signs should we watch for after a May 2005 election?

Changes in Defra and/or DTI as part of one, maybe two, cabinet reshuffles – watch out for a potential nuclear champion among the senior Blair loyalists installed at DTI. Nuclear becoming more politically ‘acceptable’ in the context of climate change mitigation and the G8 agenda, with cooperative agreements on technology with the USA. Early summer: support to build capacity for pre-licensing in the UK.

If none of these occur we can expect the new select committee on trade and industry to look at nuclear in the autumn of 2005, which would provide another opportunity for the government to respond and act in 2006.

Author Info:

Chris Lambert, Director, Westminster Energy Forum, 23 Great Smith Street, London, SW1P 3BL, UK

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