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Thatcher's UK nuclear power vision remains a mess

“The high cost of nuclear has always been known. Witness the fact that Sizewell B is the only evidence of Thatcher’s nuclear vision”

In August 1987 construction of Sizewell B began, kicking off Margaret Thatcher’s vision to build a nuclear station every year for ten years to safeguard the nation against coal dependence. Her vision failed.

Nineteen years later prime minister Tony Blair reversed decades of Labour opposition to nuclear power with his controversial U-turn speech to the CBI in 2006.

At the time, he said that failure to replace the UK’s ageing nuclear and fossil fuel plants would fuel global warming, threaten the nation’s energy security and be a “dereliction of our duty to the future of this country”.

Three years and much argument later, then energy secretary Ed Miliband followed up with policies to fast track a new generation of UK privately funded nuclear power.

These policies, inherited and built on by the coalition, hoped to ensure that in the face of impending power station closures, the nation’s lights stayed on. But they were intended to protect the tax payer and the consumer from the high cost of nuclear and ensure that the UK was low carbon and energy self-sufficient.

Seven years on it is clear that the UK’s energy generation policy is still in a mess. More worryingly, there are few signs that the coalition’s current dithering over options and policies is set to change any time soon.

This week’s news that French energy giant EdF has once again set aside its decision over whether or not to commit to a £10bn investment in a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point underlines the problem.

The high cost of nuclear has always been known. Witness the fact that Sizewell B is the only evidence of Thatcher’s nuclear vision, as a cheaper “dash for gas” prevailed.

But particularly since the government ruled that, in the world of private sector energy generation, future decommission costs should also be covered by operators.

Thus for the private sector to embrace nuclear - or any non-fossil fuel - power generation as key to the nation’s low carbon agenda, subsidies, either direct or via energy prices - would always be necessary.

So to have been dithering over how to embrace these subsidies for so long is clearly ridiculous and potentially hugely damaging to a nation battling to drive growth and efficiency and embrace a low carbon future.

As chief executive of energy regulator Ofgem Alastair Buchanan pointed out earlier this year, the nation’s reserve margin of generation - that spare capacity that prevents us being plunged into darkness - is set to fall from the current 14% to what he described as an “uncomfortably tight” 5% in three years’ time.

That is not where the UK can afford to be. Government has to recognise the importance of securing the nation’s energy supply. If lack of action seven years ago was a “dereliction of our duty” it is surely now high time for ministers to make important decisions.

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