REUTERS | Luke MacGregor

The future: nuclear or bust?

Energy and water security are thought by many to be the biggest challenges facing the world. Climate change, although even bigger, is a little further away. The problem is how to fix the first two, now, without making the third one even worse.

On 10 January 2008, the Labour government published its nuclear white paper. This concluded that the private sector should be encouraged to build new nuclear power stations in the UK.

Nuclear would be part of an overall strategy:

  • to reduce carbon dioxide emissions;
  • to replace generating capacity which is reaching the end of its serviceable life; and
  • to reduce the country’s reliance on imported fuels and energy.

There’s an interesting balance of issues here.

It’s the right thing to do

Some things (like cutting carbon dioxide emissions) are obviously the right thing to do. But the long term gain comes at a cost, and that’s not always popular. And one of the controversies in the quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has always been the role that nuclear power should play. The white paper dealt with the safety concerns head on:

… the Government believes that the safety, security, health and non-proliferation risks of new nuclear power stations are very small and that there is an effective regulatory framework in place that ensures that these risks are minimised and sensibly managed by industry.

And, anyway, we have no choice but to do it!

Some things have to be done because you really have no choice, almost regardless of the points for and against. The White Paper looked at this aspect as well.

Without a clean, secure and sufficient supply of energy we would not be able to function as an economy or as a modern society.

We know that our nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lives; not allowing energy companies to invest in new nuclear power stations would increase our dependence on fewer technologies and expose the UK to increased risk to the security of its energy supply.

And so the nuclear renaissance was announced

After the white paper, there was a flurry of meetings and lots of talking. I went to a number of meetings with a number of industry players. The principal message seemed to be that everyone’s commercial strategy was under “careful consideration”.

Then came the election…

In May 2010, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed a process that will allow the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power, while permitting the government to bring forward planning policies on nuclear development for ratification by Parliament, to enable nuclear new build.

Nobody seems sure what that really means. But I sense that people are starting to worry quite a bit:

  • We heard in May that Sellafield are in talks about redundancies.
  • We heard in June that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is to cut nuclear jobs including at its headquarters near Whitehaven.
  • On 15 July Tim Yeo reported on the “Blue Blog” that:

On Tuesday morning the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee was finally able to get down to business after its membership was approved by the House.

Tim is the chairman. The word “nuclear” is not mentioned in his post but he did say that:

“We hope to have an early evidence session and we plan to hit the ground running with an announcement of our first inquiry next week.”

However, as it turns out, the committee’s first reports will be on emissions performance standards and deepwater drilling.

If you want a rather cynical view of what’s happening, read Simon Hoggart’s sketch in the Guardian.

The government must be aware of these concerns, and certainly its Annual Energy Statement of 27 July aims to give some comfort. For example, it promises the conclusion of the generic design assessment stage for new reactors by the end of June 2011 (see page 17).

Is our expertise fading?

For our industry, there is an issue peculiar to nuclear, which is expertise. With a few exceptions, the UK’s nuclear expertise has been diminishing rapidly and those with any experience of the nuclear industry (let alone experience of building nuclear power stations) are reaching the end of their careers.

“Education, education, education” was the obvious answer, otherwise large parts of the work would have to be done by foreign companies or expats. And although you can’t give somebody 25 years of nuclear experience in the classroom, you can get them quite a way up the learning curve.

People are starting to doubt that nuclear power in the UK will go ahead in the near future, either because of politics, or because of the cost. That could mean that we will let our expertise slip away and postpone investing in education.

There are always rumours in the nuclear industry, just like any other. One rumour that caught my ear a few years ago was that nuclear power was considered for the Queen Mary 2 liner, but rejected on the grounds of cost. That rumour may or may not be true. However, if nuclear new build does eventually happen in the UK and we have lost our expertise then (if you will pardon the pun) we as an industry may well have missed the boat.

2 thoughts on “The future: nuclear or bust?

  1. PLC Environment have reported on press comments made by Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, that new build nuclear would be “on track by 2018”.

  2. It’s a shame that the UK is losing it’s expertise in nuclear. It’s the cleanest and cheapest form of power and it’s a pity that the governments not only in the UK but in the rest of the developed world, are chasing green votes.

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