More nuclear power plants in UK

A decision to build more nuclear power stations in the UK seems certain to be one outcome of the government’s review of energy policy, which was disclosed this week.

The review will look at how the country’s electricity and gas needs will be met over the next 30-40 years and represents a marked departure from the hands-off approach to energy policy over the last decade.

It has been welcomed by leading figures in the energy industry and has the highest political backing, as it will be conducted by the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit, which reports to Prime Minister Tony Blair. Brian Wilson, the new energy minister – who is also an advocate of nuclear power – will chair the study panel.

Any plans to build more nuclear plants will certainly encounter vehement opposition from environmentalists. But without a continuing nuclear contribution to the UK’s energy mix, at the present level the government has no chance of meeting its Kyoto commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The UK’s target is to cut its emissions by 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. A further goal, set by the last Labour government, is to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010.

However, about 3,000MW of first-generation Magnox nuclear capacity will be shut down by 2007, and the renewable sector is unlikely to be able to plug this gap – hence new nuclear construction is fast becoming the favoured option.

The standard 10-12-year time-scale for building nuclear power stations would make it impossible to meet the 2010 targets for cutting emissions through new construction, but the development of smaller, less sophisticated, modular reactor systems offers the prospect of halving construction times.

However, as such designs have yet to get off the drawing-board, their development – and the building of pilot plants – would have to proceed urgently.

Labour has moderated its stance on nuclear power since it was elected. The 1997 election manifesto stated that there was no case for further nuclear construction in the UK; this year’s manifesto acknowledged that ‘coal and nuclear power play important roles in ensuring diversity in our sources of electricity generation’.

The review is also sure to recommend the continuing expansion of the renewables sector to ensure that electricity supply companies are able to comply with the government’s plan to oblige them to buy 10% of their requirements from such sources by 2010.

There is likely to be particular focus on offshore wind farms, solar power and biomass technologies.

The renewable drive received a further boost this week with the announcement that Vestas, the Danish world leader in the manufacture of wind turbines, is to spend £11.5m setting up a factory at Machrihanish near Campbeltown in the west of Scotland.

The plant will be the first of its kind in the UK and will employ 124 and create a further 44 indirect jobs.