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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April, 2005, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Parties will not lead on nuclear
Sizewell B (BBC)
Sizewell B was the last station to be built in the UK
None of the UK's three main parties will take the lead in the debate on building new nuclear power stations.

Many energy experts say the issue must be raised soon if Britain is to start construction of new plants to meet its power production and climate targets.

But the parties do not believe the next government will have a responsibility to promote the nuclear argument.

Labour and the Tories say that it is down to industry to make a case - which the Lib Dems think is unwinnable.

"This is about industry coming forward with proposals," said Lord Sainsbury, who has held the science and innovation ministerial brief under Labour.

"We have said we will keep the nuclear option open; we're putting the money in to make certain we have the research and trained people available if there is a change in the situation, but, in the first instance, it is for industry to come forward and then we will have that public debate."

Skills need

He was speaking with his opposite numbers from other parties at a briefing for science journalists ahead of the 5 May general election.

Labour has made great play of a coming climate crisis and intends to make the issue an ever-present one if it is returned to power.

The new government will take up the UK presidency of both the EU and the G8 group of industrial nations, and will be well placed to influence international energy policy.

Storage containers for vitrified waste     Image: BNFL
High-level waste - 2,000 cubic metres
Intermediate-level waste - 350,000 cubic metres
Low-level waste - 30,000 cubic metres
Spent fuel - 10,000 cubic metres
Plutonium - 4,300 cubic metres
Uranium - 75,000 cubic metres
But Labour's position - shared by the other two parties - is that nuclear is currently off the agenda because the high costs of decommissioning stations (allied to still unresolved questions about what to do with radioactive waste) make new-builds uneconomic.

The 2003 White Paper on energy recognised the urgent need for new sources of power to be developed.

With the move away from coal and the reduction in North Sea oil and gas, the UK will become a big net importer of energy unless it can find alternatives. An aspirational electricity-generation target from renewables of 20% by 2020 has been set - a goal some energy analysts doubt can be met.

Robert Key, the Conservative shadow on science and innovation, says his party is acutely aware of the energy security issue but feels it should not be the government's position to promote nuclear as a solution.

"I am unhappy at the prospect of 60% or more of our electricity generation coming from imported gas over the next 10-20 years, so we have to address this problem of whether we have nuclear or not," Mr Key explained.

"There is also the problem of de-skilling in the nuclear technology workforce. We are hardly going to have enough people to decommission our nuclear stations as they currently exist because the generation that built them is now retiring."

Funding pledge

For the Lib Dems, there is no future for nuclear in the UK's energy portfolio.

"The answer is 'no'; the economic case is not adequate because of the problem of dealing with the waste," said Evan Harris, who sat on the Commons Science and Technology committee in the parliament just ended.

"We're the party most concerned about non-carbon generating forms of energy.

"Our manifesto calls for massive increases in funding for alternative energy, including a form of nuclear energy I want to see get invested in - which is fusion."

The UK, as a member of the European Union, is part of an international effort to build an experimental reactor that would harness atomic energy by fusing nuclei rather than splitting them - as in the current fission reactors.

But although fusion technology is likely to produce substantially less high-level radioactive waste, its commercial application may be many decades away.

Britain's 12 nuclear power stations currently provide a little over 20% of the nation's electricity. The last station to come on stream was Sizewell B in 1994 after one of the biggest public inquiries ever undertaken in Britain.

Unless the ageing stations are replaced with new ones, there are likely to be only three left operating by 2020, producing perhaps just 7% of the country's requirements.

Lord May, the outgoing president of the Royal Society, the UK's academy of science, recently called for a public debate on nuclear new-build, arguing the dangers of climate change demanded an urgent move away from fossil fuels and their carbon dioxide emissions.



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