“Renewables, nuclear and clean fossil fuels are the trinity of low carbon and the future of energy in Britain.” Ed Miliband, Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

On 15 July 2009 the UK Government published its Low Carbon Transition Plan (the Plan). The Plan provides a route-map for the Government to develop a low carbon economy and to put the UK at the forefront of low carbon evolution.

The UK Government is calling for a global agreement at the UN talks in Copenhagen which are to be held in December 2009 and as such the Plan states that to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change the average global temperature must rise no more than a 2°C. To achieve this aggressive target, global emissions must start falling by 2020 and then fall at least 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.  

At present, three quarters of the UK’s electricity comes from coal and gas. For the objectives of the Plan to be realised, sourcing needs to change so that electricity is obtained from renewable or low carbon sources. All sectors of the UK economy will be expected to cut emissions, although electricity generation and heavy industry, which account for 35 per cent of UK’s emissions at present, will bear the majority of the reductions.  

Under the plan, the Government, by 2020, aims to both secure power supplies and to cut emissions, from power and industry collectively by 22 per cent on 2008 levels - so that by 2020 approximately 40 per cent of electricity in the UK will be generated using low carbon sources, with nuclear playing a key role.

Key steps/objectives for the power market

In order to meet the objective of 40 per cent electricity generation from low carbon sources by 2020, the Government has set itself a number of key steps or targets:

  • to produce around 30% of electricity from renewables by 2020;
  • to fund up to four demonstrations of capturing and storing emissions from coal power stations;
  • to facilitate the building of new nuclear power stations, the first of which will be operational by 2018; and
  • to work with Ofgem and industry to increase grid capacity.

Nuclear power and government policy

In the Plan, the Government reaffirms its position on nuclear power which was established previously in its White Paper on Nuclear Power in January 2008. The Government is of the view that nuclear power is low carbon, affordable, dependable, safe, proven technology and capable of increasing the diversity of energy supply. The Government believes that new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in the UK’s future energy mix alongside other low carbon resources and that it would be in the public interest to allow energy companies to invest in new nuclear power stations.

The Government has already taken steps towards facilitating the construction of new nuclear stations. These include:

  • streamlining the planning procedure with the introduction of the single consent regime overseen by the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), which is due to start taking applications in March 2010;
  • running a process of Regulatory Justification to ensure that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh any potential health risks when using ionising radiation in order to comply with the requirements under European law;
  • working to ensure that nuclear regulators have the required resources and equipment necessary to assess the safety, security and environmental impact of new nuclear reactor designs through the Generic Design Assessment process to be completed by June 2011, and in the future;
  • in June 2009, the Government launched a consultation on proposals to enhance the transparency and accountability of nuclear regulation, creating a regulatory body with the autonomy and flexibility needed to meet challenges of the changing nuclear environment; and
  • undertaking the Strategic Siting Assessment of sites which have been nominated as suitable sites for the development of new nuclear stations by 2025.

Following the Strategic Siting Assessment the Government will issue a National Policy Statement (NPS) for nuclear power, on which the Government will consult in Q4 2009. Once finalised, the IPC will use the NPS to help it make decisions about applications to develop new nuclear power stations.

The funding, development and building of the new nuclear power stations will be the responsibility of private companies. They will be responsible for the full cost of decommissioning and the full share of waste management and disposal costs. The Government will only facilitate the process by removing any unnecessary obstacles to the development of these new nuclear power stations.

The Office of Nuclear Development will continue to work with industry experts and others to meet new nuclear skills requirements, and to develop a globally competitive UK supply chain that focuses on high value added activities to take advantage of the UK and worldwide nuclear new build.

Further, the Government is continuing to take action to decommission the UK’s legacy facilities. The Government is at present funding the largest ever expenditure on the UK civil nuclear clean-up programme through the NDA and the competitions and it aims to decommission those sites in a safe, cost effective way while protecting the environment.

Safety and security of new nuclear power stations

The UK has strict, independent, safety and environmental protection regimes in place for nuclear power. The nuclear industry is already subject to safety licensing conditions and new developers will need to comply with safety and environmental conditions set by the different regulators. ALARP principles will apply, particularly in relation to any potential exposure to radiation.

The Office of Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS) is the regulating body for the security of nuclear sites and nuclear material and ensures that security measures are included in plans for the construction of any new nuclear power station.

Having considered the evidence and the arguments, as well as the advice from the regulators and the design being considered by the industry, the Government believes that new nuclear power stations pose a very small risk to safety, security, health and proliferation. It expressed its faith in the effectiveness of the current regulatory system and feels that adequate measures are in place to ensure that risks are minimised and sensibly managed by the industry.

Managing nuclear waste

The Government has highlighted the need to manage radioactive waste effectively and is looking to develop a long term solution. The White Paper on Managing Radioactive Waste Safely sets out a framework for managing high radioactive waste. The plan reiterates the Government’s stance that before development consents for new nuclear power stations are granted, it will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist or will exist to manage and dispose of the waste they produce.

Grid connections

Without a smarter and more flexible grid we will not be able to manage the energy created from future energy supplies. The Government needs to ensure that the grid is able to respond to the pressures for connecting the new power stations in a timely way.  

Ofgem has approved £4 to 5 billion of refurbishment and expansion plans to ensure that the grid is capable of meeting the current and future electricity distribution requirements. In addition Ofgem has approved up to £43 million of pre-construction work on projects identified in the ENSG vision and by summer 2010 it will finalise new incentives for network companies to build new lines necessary to meet the 2020 targets. In the meantime the Government is developing a new grid National Policy Statement and will publish it for consultation late in 2009.

The future

As a result of the action taken so far, many energy companies have announced plans to build over 12GW of new nuclear capacity.

The industry awaits the consultations scheduled for late 2009.