Nuclear new-build: where are we?

On 18 October 2010, the Government identified eight sites in England and Wales as suitable for future nuclear power stations. Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has confirmed the new reactor designs are "justified". He has also released the National Policy Statements (NPSs) (an important part of the planning process) for a second phase of public consultation. The consultation period will run until 24 January 2011, with the finalised statements being presented to Parliament for ratification next Spring. Also, the draft Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Handling (Designated Technical Matters) Order 2010 has been laid before Parliament. This finalises the statutory framework for the financing of nuclear decommissioning.

Which sites have been identified as suitable?

Hinckley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk are the first two suitable sites that EDF are intending to build. Horizon, the joint venture between RWE npower and E.ON UK is proposing to develop the sites at Wylfa (Isle of Anglesey) and Oldbury (Gloucestershire); both of which the Government has also found to be suitable. The remaining sites deemed suitable are Bradwell (Essex), Sellafield (Cumbria), Hartlepool (County Durham) and Heysham (Lancashire). It is proposed that these power stations will be built by 2025.

Which sites were rejected?

Those sites excluded from the Nuclear NPS were Dungeness (Kent) and Braystones and Kirksanton (both in Cumbria). A key factor in rejecting the Cumbrian sites was that the benefits of the power stations were outweighed by the potential impact on wildlife in the Lake District National Park.

What is Justification?

The Justification of Practices Involving Ionising Radiation Regulations 2004 state in Regulation 4(4) that "no person shall carry out a practice resulting in exposure to ionising radiation unless it has been justified in accordance with the Regulations".

The authorities permitted to provide such justification are listed in regulation 6(1) as: the Secretary of State, the Scottish Ministers, a Northern Ireland department and the National Assembly for Wales. Justification decisions are made at a national government (rather than agency) level, as there are social and economic implications alongside the technical issues.

Justification involves a high level assessment of the net benefits of a practice being weighed against health and other potential detriments. This assessment must be completed prior to the practice being implemented. The justification of a practice is non-specific and does not relate to a particular scheme or site.

Before a justified practice can be operated, it is necessary to obtain a range of regulatory, licensing and planning consents. Decisions on justification are issued as Statutory Instruments and details of all applications and decisions are kept on the public register maintained by DEFRA (available on their website).

What are the Energy NPSs?

As stated by Chris Huhne in his written Ministerial Statement of 18 October 2010: "The Energy NPSs set out national policy on a number of key energy policy areas: Fossil Fuels; Renewables; Gas Supply and Gas and Oil Pipelines; Electricity Networks; and Nuclear. Each of these forms a separate NPS, sitting below an Overarching Energy NPS. Each of the NPSs is accompanied by an Appraisal of Sustainability (AoS), which incorporates environmental reports which have been prepared under European law, and by a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA)."

Why is there going to be a second consultation?

This will be the second consultation on the NPSs. Few significant changes have been made to the Nuclear NPS since the first consultation, which took place between November 2009 and February 2010. The main reason for the second consultation is that amendments have been made to the AoSs.

The most noteworthy change to the Nuclear NPS is as follows: redrafting to reflect the number of potentially suitable sites dropping to eight; clarification on the duration of on-site storage of higher activity waste and the Infrastructure Planning Committee's role in managing and disposing of nuclear waste; and redrafting to reflect the Government's confidence that geological disposal will be carried through.

The AoSs faced considerable criticism from environmental organisations. The main issue was how alternatives to the appraised practices were dealt with. The Government's view was that the proposed practice should be appraised against having no practice at all. The environmental organisations thought the proposed practice should be appraised against other renewable energy practices.

As a result of the feedback from the first consultation, a significant change has been made to the AoSs. An appraisal of a practice will now look at the potential advantages and disadvantages of adopting alternative practices in the NPSs to achieve the overall energy policy objectives. This change does not apply to the Nuclear AoS.

No subsidy for new nuclear power

Along with the other announcements, Chris Huhne confirmed the Government's policy is that "there will be no public subsidy for new nuclear power". Also, Chris Huhne's written Ministerial Statement of 18 October 2010 confirmed that new nuclear operators must have arrangements in place to meet the full costs of decommissioning and their full share of waste management costs. This is within the framework of the Government's policy under the Energy Act 2008. He also provided that the Government will not rule out taking title to radioactive waste, including spent fuel, at a fixed price. This is on the basis that the price properly reflects any financial risks or liabilities assumed by the State.

Industry comment

Commenting on the recent news, Keith Parker (Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association) has said: "With the output from modern reactors being much larger nowadays we can replace half of the present nuclear output by building at just two sites in the UK. We have eight sites in total still deemed suitable by the government. If they are all developed by utilities then our nuclear component could more than double. This could be excellent news in the fight to lower carbon emissions and ensure security of supply".