Features editor

The clock is ticking on the future of the UK’s energy supply, and it’s ticking ever more insistently. With four years to go until the majority of the coal-fired power stations are switched off, the need for clarity over the proposed new fleet of nuclear power stations is getting stronger.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) today released the latest bulletin for its Generic Design Assessment (GDA) exercise to certify the two competing designs for the new generation of nuclear reactors: the EPR from French consortium Areva and the Westinghouse AP1000. It’s very much a ’steady as she goes’ report; the HSE is requesting more information from both groups, but does not anticipate any problems with meeting its deadline of next June to complete the GDA.

Meanwhile, the owner of one of the proposed new reactor sites, Wylfa, on the Isle of Anglesey, has signed contracts with both Areva and Westinghouse’s delivery team, comprising Westinghouse itself, Shaw Group, Laing O’Rourke and Toshiba, for preparatory design studies, hedging its bets over which reactor will occupy the site. The owner, a joint venture between RWE nPower and E.On called Horizon Nuclear Power, plans to have its new reactor online by 2020, and will make a planning application in 2012. The company also owns another proposed nuclear site, Oldbury-on-Severn in Gloucestershire. EDF, meanwhile, has firm plans to build four EPR reactors, two each at Sizewell and Hinkley Point.

So there can be no doubt that industry and regulators are moving ahead with nuclear; meanwhile, wind power developers are racing to develop 10MW offshore turbines and ever-larger designs of tidal turbines are being lowered into the water for testing. All of the pieces are certainly coming together for the new profile of UK energy generation. Unsurprisingly, the government’s response is the only thing that seems to be lagging behind.

Some say that this is only right. Electricity supply is not a function of government; it’s for the private sector, and the private sector works by competition. The government should only step in to ensure safety and fairness when it comes to planning. But the free market is notoriously jittery; it looks to the government for reassuring signals, and it doesn’t appear to be getting them.

The Coalition’s stance on new nuclear – that it won’t put any public money into them – is clearly stated and fair enough. But there are still numerous hurdles in place for all the new electricity sources, and the biggest of these is the cost of power. While the government won’t put public money in, it does need to encourage private investment – and that won’t come unless the electricity market is reformed so that nuclear electricity can be bought on guaranteed long-term contacts, the way that energy from renewable sources can be. That allows investers the confidence in the price of power and in the return on their investment. Without this, the electricity jigsaw will remain in pieces, and the future of our energy supply will still be uncertain.