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Engineers throw weight behind nuclear plans

The government's decision to alter its policy stance on the building of nuclear power stations has generally been welcomed across the engineering profession.

Prior to the announced change in policy, the Royal Academy of Engineers had urged the government to "give the go-ahead to allow new nuclear build as part of the balanced energy mix needed to tackle climate change and provide secure long term energy supplies".

It is the phrase "balanced energy mix" that goes to the heart of the matter. Many argue that the adoption of a long-term strategic position on energy that fails to include nuclear energy at least as an option is short-sighted at best and at worst based on emotive and not necessarily rational arguments.

That carbon emissions are intrinsically linked to climate change has become something of a 21st century axiom. Nuclear fission is a carbon-neutral energy source and in these overheated times, such a source of power is becoming increasingly attractive even if the general public's attitude to the nuclear industry is ambivalent.

Indeed, given that 20% of energy consumed in the UK is produced by nuclear power, one might even venture that popular attitudes to the nuclear industry are positively hypocritical.

There is every likelihood that Greenpeace will launch a fresh challenge to this second consultation. This should not prevent the nuclear industry pressing on with the development of projects; given that the gestation period before the ground ever gets broken could be anything up to ten years, it makes sense to press ahead with the aspects of the project that can be addressed even with a legal challenge looming.

Climate change is not the only issue that could be potentially addressed by the construction of new power stations. Tony Price, formerly director of major projects at British Nuclear Group and now group MD at Redhall, was not averse to making apocalyptic pronouncements on the looming energy gap.

"Realistically, we're only ten years from the lights going out," he said. He maintained that increasing reliance on imported Russian gas and European logistics to land the fuel are already serious issues going forward in terms of UK energy policy. Price is perhaps more assertive than many in the engineering profession in that his call is not just for nuclear energy as one plank of a mixed strategy, he wants it to be the backbone of energy policy.

Having said that, it should be borne in mind that nuclear power will not come online quickly enough to address that doomsday scenario. For Price, nuclear energy is very much part of the long game.

So, where do we go from here? The privatisation of the energy market means that any nuclear power station construction undertaken as a result of this policy change will be dictated by market forces. "All the UK government is trying to do is create an environment that is conducive to the building of nuclear power stations," said Simon Harrison of Mott MacDonald. "Over the past couple of years, a good deal of work has been done in streamlining the permitting process for individual power stations and this will go some way towards speeding up the design side of business in that the available designs for power stations can be dealt with under generic licensing agreements," he added.

These are, however, uncertain times for the global economy. Unquestionably, the price of fossil fuels continues its inexorable rise but a US recession or indeed a downturn in the roaring Chinese economy could change all that. In the event of global recession, the capital cost of nuclear power station construction could become distinctly unattractive.

Attendant uncertainty in the carbon pricing market is also likely to be an issue going forward. The government needs to provide assurances that there is something approaching joined up thinking on emissions reduction and trading.

Then there is the thorny problem posed by a dwindling and ageing skills base, a malady suffered right across the profession. Who is to say we will even have the people to build the power stations in ten years time when we eventually do get through the design, licensing, planning and procurement processes? If we optimistically assume that construction of new power stations will to begin within ten years and given the average age of engineering professional professionals in the nuclear industry is now somewhere in the mid to late fifties, then there is unquestionably a skills shortage in the offing.

Alistair Smith, director of nuclear services at Parsons Brinkerhoff was robust in his assessment of this issue; "if this industry needs the skills to build, then they are just going to have to pay for them," he said.

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