In Parliament >> Another fine mess

11th May 2012


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  • Energy ,
  • Central government ,
  • Generation ,
  • Conventional

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IEMA

Alan Whitehead MP explains why he has doubts that the UK's new nuclear power stations will ever be built

I suggested in this column a year ago that building a new generation of nuclear power plants could pose considerable difficulties for the government. And its plans are now unravelling fast.

Last year it suggested that as much as 20% of electricity could come from new nuclear in the early 2020s, rising to perhaps 40% by the late 2030s. Much of this would be new build because most of Britain’s present nuclear fleet will have been decommissioned by 2022.

But there are now major problems standing in the way of this goal. Nuclear power takes a long time to commission, plan, build and operate – perhaps 10 years per plant – so building should be already under way; but it isn’t.

And the coalition agreement declared that new plants should be built with “no public subsidy”, a tall order in the light of experience across the world where not one plant has yet been built wholly on that formula.

This has led to some difficult contortions for the government. The package of reforms to the electricity market is arguably built around several implicit subsidies for existing and new nuclear plants without actually saying so. But despite these measures and a multitude of encouragements, only one investor has actually stepped forward.

One consortium recently pulled the plug on its plans, and another has effectively put its plans on hold. The remaining consortium may not be one much longer as junior partner Centrica looks likely to leave. The prospect now is that one energy company, EDF – which already runs all existing UK nuclear power plants – will stand alone with plans to produce just two reactors initially and up to four by 2025.

The crisis of disappearing nuclear capacity surely points to an urgent rethink. Will nuclear now play just a peripheral role in future UK energy policy, and if so should all the effort and potential market distortion that has gone into procuring such a lame result be directed elsewhere?

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