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The big debate goes on

Energy White Paper - Last week's ruling in the High Court has thrown Britain's nuclear future into doubt. Or has it? Ed Owen reports.

Tony Blair left us in no doubt about where the UK's energy policy was heading when he told businessmen at the CBI's annual dinner last May that nuclear power was 'back on the agenda with a vengeance'.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, Greenpeace sat up and took notice, taking the government's Energy Review - at the time of Blair's comments still an ongoing 'consultation' on new nuclear build - to a judicial review. Mr Justice Sullivan delivered his damning verdict last week, quashing the conclusion that new nuclear power is needed and ordering another consultation (see news).

At first glance, this is a disaster for the nuclear industry.

But it might not be the victory Greenpeace hoped for either. The Department of Trade & Industry has conrmed it will go ahead and publish, as planned, its Energy White Paper, as it 'relates to issues broader than nuclear'.

This should be out next month.

Until last week's verdict, it was anticipated that third generation nuclear power stations would have been ready around 2016.

But more consultation could push this back by two years to 2018.

This would leave little margin for delay. Today, 20% of the UK's energy supply comes from nuclear power. By 2018, there will be no rst generation Magnox power stations left - the last, Wylfa, will come off-line in 2010.

Following that, Hinkley Point B and Hunterson B close in 2011, Hartlepool and Heysham 1 in 2014, and - critically - Dungeness B in 2018.

This week, Blair remained deant in his support of new nuclear energy. 'If we don't replace the existing nuclear power stations then, first, I cannot see how we are going to meet our climate change targets.

Second, we will end up, as we move as a country from selfsufciency in gas, to importing large amounts of foreign gas.' The international nuclear lobby realises this and is pressing hard.

New power station designs would be non-British. So far, the only non-British design to have been approved is the Sizewell B reactor. But the Energy White Paper was expected to speed the approvals process by introducing a pre-licensing system to allow generic designs, such as for the current market-leading Westinghouse AP1000 or EDF's European EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) to be built.

Industry lobby group, the Nuclear Industry Alliance, points out that this is needed regardless. 'It is hard to get any big infrastructure project through. Sizewell B took six years for planning alone, ' says a spokesman.

The nuclear lobby is also working hard on costs. The government's own cost-benet analysis - attacked in the judicial review - makes nuclear power seem highly attractive. Building costs per kW make nuclear - at £1.4bn/kW - roughly as expensive as some types of coalred power stations and cheaper than offshore wind, although still almost double the cost of a gaspowered power station.

However, if the volatile cost of carbon and charges for burning it should the EU's carbon-trading scheme become effective, then nuclear begins to look cheaper.

Absolute costs remain high, however. The Olkiluoto plant, being built in Finland to European EPR designs, will cost £2.5bn.

And, as Greenpeace pointed out, one area in which the nuclear lobby has not cleaned up its act is decommissioning. While third generation sites produce far smaller quantities of waste, there is still a question mark over what to do with the power station itself.

The latest advice from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) is to stick contaminated waste into a hole in the ground - a solution many nd rather troubling. As CoRWM chair, professor Gordon MacKerron, pointed out when it published its report in July: 'The UK has been creating radioactive waste for 50 years without any clear idea of what to do with it.' Inhis summary, Mr Justice Sullivan said that the government's consultation contained no proposals, so people could not make informed decisions. 'There could be no proper consultation, let alone the fullest consultation, ' he said.

While there is a queue of companies and investors lining up to put cash into new nuclear, without a proper debate, it is difcult to know whether people really do want it. Now the government must reconsult, so the people must decide.

Let the debate begin.

Third generation reactors: are they safer?

The legacy of the 1950s looms large over any new nuclear build.

First-generation Magnox reactors will all be off-line by 2010. But the modern 'third generation' reactors are said to be safer and produce far less waste than their cold war predecessors. Today, the nuclear industry pushes its green credentials. Third generation plants operate 'passively', meaning they tend to decrease rather than increase reactions in an emergency, making a disaster like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island theoretically impossible.

Multiple layers of redundancy mean that, should anything go drastically wrong, radioactivity would be contained. The reactors are also more efficient, operating at higher temperatures. The cores do not need the pure fuel of 1950s reactors. Depleted fuel from first and second generation reactors, and other sources, can be added to the fuel mix, producing smaller quantities of highly radioactive waste.

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