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Question mark still hangs over nuclear green light

Should there be a question mark or not? We debated this issue for some time when preparing this week’s cover.

The suggestion that the expected planning approval for Hinkley Point C this month could provide a true “green light for nuclear” certainly remains very much hypothetical.

While planning approval, if given, will provide a green light of sorts, in truth the decision goes beyond mere planning.

As we heard this week from Tim Yeo, chair of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, any real green light for new nuclear still relies on government biting the bullet over just how much it is prepared to subsidise nuclear and just how much risk it is prepared to underwrite.

His committee’s report points out that raising finance remains one of the biggest barriers to nuclear new build, adding that “new nuclear should not be delivered if the price is too high”.

Despite the clear challenge to secure private funding, government and the committee agree that a new nuclear programme is vital to secure the UK’s power demand and to meeting our legally binding climate change commitments.

Yet a very real fear pervades the industry that, having got this far and invested so much in Hinkley Point C, failure to build out this project will make it even harder - perhaps impossible - for any future nuclear power plants to be delivered.

The subtext of the committee’s report is that government should now put its cards on the table and start to talk about subsidies.

Right now it is pinning its hopes on the so-called Contracts for Difference to set the appropriate “strike price” for nuclear generated electricity, a process that clearly still lacks a degree of transparency. And while it is a solution, it has so far failed to yield a deal with potential funders and got us no closer to a decision to start building.

As the committee puts it, “given that ultimately these decisions are beyond the Government’s control, it is worrying that the Department of Energy and Climate Change does not have any contingency plans in place for the event that little or no new nuclear is forthcoming”.

Those actively promoting alternative renewable schemes such as the much-overlooked Severn Barrage will no doubt read such comments with frustration. There is, after all, little logic for underpinning nuclear while overlooking tidal or wind power schemes that could potentially cost less.

As is the case for all low carbon sources of energy, permanently removing the question mark over new nuclear needs government to take difficult decisions over energy policy.

And however you dress it up, that means committing public - or consumers’ - money to subsidise any cost beyond that of simply burning cheap gas. On that basis, we should probably have kept the question mark in.

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