Is Britain’s nuclear renaissance in danger?
If many commentators are to be believed, the renaissance of Britain’s nuclear industry is in imminent danger of collapse.
It’s a seductive analysis. As the Member of Parliament whose constituency contains the UK’s largest nuclear complex in the form of Sellafield, I threw myself into efforts to draft a new pro-nuclear energy policy with Malcolm Wicks and the No 10 Policy Unit almost immediately after my election in 2005.
As Putin turned off the gas supplies in Eastern Europe and Stern warned of the environmental and economic consequences of our failure to combat global warming, support among the public, Parliament and business for new nuclear power in the UK soared.
From a near-death experience caused by decades of neglect combined with poor leadership in both the public and privately led wings of the industry, nuclear was back. Welcome, Lazarus Ltd.
Cross-party support for the industry has always been important and in times of national political turbulence, industries requiring stable environments in order to make long-term investments place political consensus at a premium. This consensus exists. The pro-nuclear energy policy of the last Labour government has been picked up by the coalition government. Yet half-way through this Parliament, Britain’s nuclear renaissance remains temporarily thwarted.
Today, the BBC’s Robert Peston has warned that the stand-off between EDF and the Treasury over the support required for the UK’s first new nuclear power station in a generation risks the “very real prospect” of Britain joining some other countries in “running down nuclear”.
At the same time, Parliament’s energy and climate change committee has warned that failure to build new nuclear will make it much harder and more expensive for us to meet our climate change targets, that government appears to be “crossing its fingers that private companies will deliver” and that a Plan B is required in case new nuclear stations are not built on time...
Given our needs, given the political consensus and given the public support, how are we in this position?
The truth is that new nuclear investors require a more supportive investment environment than the one that currently exists. Like every form of electricity generation, nuclear needs support from government.
I have consistently called for this support to be given and DECC now understands this need. But does the Treasury? For 18 months now the nuclear industry has made the case to government for further support, during which a series of potential investors – many of them British – have disappeared.
Different government departments moving in different directions is not a new development, but the prospect of collapse in a policy area of such vital importance to our national energy, economic and environmental needs bears the hallmarks of incoherent government and now risks becoming a national scandal.
This incoherence can be corrected and this scandal can be averted. It is in our national interest that it is.
After all, a government that prides itself on acting in the interests of the market really should listen when the market itself asks for help.
So let’s begin to rebalance our economy, grow our manufacturing capability, secure our energy supplies, create upwards of 100,000 jobs and ensure that we are able to meet our climate change commitments. These achievements are there for the taking.
Britain’s nuclear renaissance should have begun before now. The only credible Plan B for energy policy is to make Plan A work and give nuclear the support it needs. For the sake of us all, Lazarus Ltd must be kept alive.