The trade and industry committee published its report on nuclear power, called ‘New Nuclear? Examining the Issues’, on July 10th – just a day before the publication of the government’s energy review. Not seeking to give a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to new nuclear power stations, the report is rather a checklist of the major questions against which the government’s policy on nuclear power can be judged.
The committee’s unanimous report from a group with differing views on the merits of nuclear power found that:
- Nuclear power is definitely a low carbon source of energy – even when full account is taken of construction and the extraction and refining of uranium
- Ministers should not favour one source of energy supply over another but remain ‘technology neutral’, allowing the market to determine the mix of supply. However, the nuclear industry will build new power stations without state subsidies only if the right long-term framework is put in place – some form of stable long-term carbon pricing is essential before new nuclear build could be funded. Personally I am unconvinced that the government’s reliance on the European emissions trading scheme (ETS) will deliver the goods.
- The public is unlikely to support new nuclear power stations unless the government does enough to encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency.
- There must be a broad cross-party consensus if new nuclear power stations are to be built – the policy framework in which they are built, operated and decommissioned must be reasonably stable if funding is to be made available.
- A clear strategy for the disposal of existing radioactive waste will be necessary to gain industry and public support for new build. Yet the record of successive governments to date has been dismal. The committee found in a separate report that the final cost of dealing with the legacy is likely to be significantly higher then the current estimate of £70.2 billion. New nuclear stations will generate much lower levels of waste, but the policy to deal with legacy waste must be in place if public confidence is to be maintained.
- There are also ethical issues that cannot be resolved by a strictly factual or science based approach. Political judgments have to be reached on issues relating to proliferation and security.
It is vital that the government’s energy policy is based on a full consideration of the evidence and has broad support – otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. However, the government has rushed into hasty decisions regarding the future of the UK’s energy supply without taking important evidence into account.
Although no-one can accurately predict the future role of nuclear, one thing is certain – the energy review cannot be the government’s final word. Indeed it is packed full of promises to consult on a wide range of issues. The debate is not over yet.
Peter Luff is chairman of the trade and industry select committee and Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire.