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Power cuts loom as inertia delays nuclear decisions

Leading UK scientists this week slammed government inertia regarding the development of new nuclear power stations.

They warned that ministers risked failing to create a viable way to decarbonise energy without power cuts.

Problems include a lack of commitment to developing nuclear plants at the rate required and a failure to ensure that the construction programmes will have enough consistency to create a successful industry.

The criticisms were made in parallel with the publication of a report by a group led by the government’s former chief scientific adviser professor sir David King, now director at the University of Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and Environment.

“A detailed strategy is needed to take us forward,” King told NCE.

North Sea bonanza

“The North Sea oil bonanza is over. Energy is the most important issue for the government.”

He added that the resulting loss of revenue from oil would be “massive” and developing nuclear power capacity could be worth billions of pounds to the economy by mid-century.

The report, Towards a Low Carbon Pathway for the UK, published this week, says the eight new nuclear power stations, proposed to be delivered in England and Wales by 2025, will replace the existing nuclear fleet. But it says their construction would only result in nuclear power’s contribution to a low carbon economy “standing still”.
King also criticised the government’s plan to form a Nuclear Research and Development Board to sit under its chief scientific adviser.

The report says that the Board would have ” a much more limited remit” than required. Instead a body with a wider strategic role operating at arm’s length from government departments is needed, said King.

“The structure of the UK nuclear industry is aligned more towards the ‘no nuclear’ stance of 2003 than the ‘new build’ stance of 2012,” says the report.

“The number of stop starts is incredible,” said report co-author and director at energy consultant Integrated Decision Management (IDM) director Gregg Butler.

“If you take a strategic view, the economics would get better and the risks would get lower.”

Butler said the French nuclear power companies were an example of this.

No French reactors for 15 years

The French built Olkiluoto scheme in Finland has suffered delays because France had not built a new nuclear plant for 15 years. In the 1980s France was building four reactors a year.

The problem is not just one of consistency of reactor design - which to a degree was being helped by the new Generic Design Assessment - but one of skills.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan a year ago and the subsequent UK Weightan review had raised the profile of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, but much more needed to be done to increase skills here, said Butler.

“It needs new blood,” he said. “But experienced new blood.” Because of the lack of consistent development in the UK, some of that would no doubt have to come from abroad in the near future, he added.

Butler told NCE that concerns about dealing with nuclear waste in the future should not hinder the development of more nuclear plants.

He added that there was also the question about the scope for using spent fuel to generate energy.

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