Weightman review should calm UK energy jitters

Editor
The Engineer

In recent weeks we’ve seen signs that the post-Fukushima jitters were beginning to impact the UK’s apparently impregnable nuclear new-build plans.

First came the news that Scottish and Southern Energy had pulled out of plans to develop a 3.6GW power plant in Cumbria. Then, last week, The Guardian reported that German utility giant RWE is reviewing plans to build two new power stations in Wales and Gloucestershire.

Clearly, it’s too early to judge whether these developments will derail the plans in question, but they have fuelled concerns that the UK nuclear industry is becoming less attractive to investors.

Against this backdrop, yesterday’s final post-Fukushima report  – which finds no reason to curtail UK nuclear new build plans – couldn’t have come at a better time for the industry.

The review, put together by chief nuclear inspector Dr Mike Weightman,  makes a number of recommendations but concludes that there are no fundamental safety weaknesses in the UK’s nuclear power station design.

However, while the Weightman review is a welcome shot in the arm for the UK nuclear industry, it remains a parlous time for our energy sector in general.

In his speech to the conservative party conference last week – in which he announced that the UK will cut emissions “no slower but no faster” than the rest of Europe – George Osborne effectively called time on David Cameron’s pledge to lead “the greenest government ever”.

And though it remains to be seen whether Osborne will actually be able to step back from the UK’s commitment to cut emission by 35 per cent by 2022, his stance is somewhat worrying.

For many, both within and outside the energy sector, low carbon energy – whether renewables, clean coal  or indeed new nuclear – isn’t just going to keep the lights on, but it could, with an ambitious government behind it, put the UK at the heart of the global energy industry. 

Osborne’s comments suggest that this ambition may be lacking, that the government is inclined to subscribe to the dangerous view that low carbon targets are a luxury that we can ill-afford, and that the goals of reducing emissions and providing affordable energy are somehow mutually exclusive.

We disagree. From new nuclear, to offshore renewables, and carbon capture and storage the UK has the expertise to lead the world.  Failure to innovate, will not just impact our future energy security but will also cost us a major opportunity for economic growth.