Frustration has been expressed over the speed with which the UK’s nuclear resurgence is progressing in some quarters. In its latest report on energy, the IMechE has highlighted a number of issues holding back the development of new reactors which it hoped the government would resolve, including financing, grid connections, planning and the troubling problem of waste disposal. These, the institution said earlier this week, made the target of having a new nuclear power station up and running by 2018 “unrealistic”. The IMechE said unless the government acted soon to resolve problems holding back the development of new nuclear, a vote of “no confidence” in the industry was likely.
But just as some see a renaissance in nuclear as crawling forward, others see it as moving too fast. That is the case for a cross-party group of MPs, who argued yesterday that there was a need for a public enquiry into the justification for building of new reactors. Their intervention came in the wake of industry experts strongly criticising the government in the past few months for moving forward with new build without considering unresolved issues such as the development of a geological repository for storing waste.
The MPs were led by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat shadow energy and climate change secretary, and included Labour’s Michael Meacher, MP for Oldham West and Royton, backed by a number of academics and industry experts. Their concern is that plans for the construction for nuclear new build are progressing without sufficient public engagement on issues such as health risks, economics, decommissioning, proliferation and waste disposal. It is feared, they said, that the government is “putting the nuclear cart before the horse”. An example of such thinking, the MPs said, was in planning for new stations before the designs for new reactors – Areva’s EPR and Westinghouse’s AP1000 – had been approved as part of the Generic Design Assessment. Another was in arguing for new power stations without having decided on the site or geology of an underground repository for their waste, and that of the UK’s nuclear legacy. The IMechE itself called on the government to put a deadline on site selection in its report.
Consultation to date on the future of the nuclear industry has been inadequate, the MPs said. “It is completely unacceptable for the secretary of state to rely on the very limited consultation taken so far,” Hughes said. “The long-term health risks are uncertain for those who live in the shadow of reactors.”
There was a so-called “dash for gas” in the 1990s to plug an energy gap, but we should not dash for nuclear over fears of the lights going off during this decade, the MPs said. “There is no rush, no panic,” said Hughes. Asked if it would be acceptable to turn to fossil-fuelled power stations in a future energy crisis, even with targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, Hughes said he hoped that greater development of renewables as well as widespread deployment of technologies such as carbon capture and storage would help curb emissions, along with increased energy efficiency. Meacher added that he did not agree that the UK was facing an energy gap, and “even if I did, the justification for nuclear should not be fudged in the interests of an energy gap that could be filled by other means”.
It’s become commonplace to think of the renaissance of nuclear as a global revolution, but here in the UK there are signs that it will not be one without its naysayers. Whether calls for a public enquiry will result in putting further brakes on the industry remains to be seen.