Horwood: coalition deal on nuclear power creates possible “win-win situation” for Lib Dems

Part of the coalition deal between the Lib Dems and Conservatives allowed for Nick Clegg and colleagues to abstain on three key issues which divide the parties – raising student tuition fees, the Tories’ marriage tax allowance, and nuclear power.

However, written into the agreement, too, was the pledge that no new nuclear power station will receive a public subsidy – which, as Mark Pack has previously noted, means that if the figures don’t stack up, they won’t happen.

It’s a point Cheltenham Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood re-inforces today in an article on politics.co.uk, Lib Dem hopes for ‘win-win’ nuclear solution:

[He] suggested his party’s decision to abstain on a nuclear vote in the Commons, allowing the Conservatives’ support for new power stations to go ahead without undermining the coalition government’s unity, could prove academic.

“If you look at the economics of nuclear power and the commitment the coalition has made not to subsidise it, and then you reflect on the fact not a single nuclear power station has been built anywhere in the world without public subsidy, maybe, just maybe the issue won’t arise,” he said.

“I just hope we will hold rigorously to that line about ruling out any public subsidies to nuclear power. That might leave us in a win-win situation.”

Mr Horwood suggested it was “not that bitter a pill to swallow” because a clear majority of the Commons – both Labour and the Conservatives – backed nuclear power.

Under the terms of the coalition agreement the Lib Dems will abstain when the government brings forward a national planning statement outlining plans for a new nuclear power station.

As ever, though, the devil will be in the detail – in particular what counts as public subsidy. The Nuclear Industry Association claims new nuclear build will be entirely privately funded, and reckons one new power station can be constructed every 18 to 24 months. But:

Green groups argue the need for indirect public subsidies blurs the line as to what does and what does not represent government assistance, however.

The nuclear industry does not pay for insurance, for example, meaning the taxpayer would have to foot the bill in the event of a major disaster.

And under a recent consultation document EDF would only have to pay around a fifth of the eventual cost for dealing with waste, leaving the government and the taxpayer facing the liability after the power station shuts down.

This will be an important debate – and it won’t only be Lib Dems watching it closely. A certain Zac Goldsmith, Tory MP in Richmond, adopts a Lib Dem line on new nuclear power – as LDV has previously noted.

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  • Paul McKeown 11th Jun '10 - 10:52am

    The lasting damage of carbon dioxide emission is not factored into the cost of coal and oil burning either. In fact if it was, it would prove unviable, as it will take nature millenia (if not whole geological cycles) to absorb what has and will be emitted by mankind since the start of the industrial revolution. Fact. Burning fossil fuels is not running a risk, it is senseless and our grandchildren will not thank us for it.

    I don’t think people should get hung up about ideas of nuclear power as a Frankenstein technology. That is so 1980’s. There are risks, but they can be engineered for. Renewables are certainly needed, but what happens when the wind does not blow, tides are low and the sun is not shining? There needs to be something to fill in the gaps. And it cannot involve fossil fuels.

  • In terms of his actual views, if not his tax status, Goldsmith is the Lib Demmiest Tory I’ve ever met (I live in a neighbouring constituency, not a yellow one unfortunately).

    Nuclear power is so needed – it’s cleaner than fossil fuels and will bridge the gap between the current state of affairs and a fully renewable energy grid. Renewable technology is improving all the time (for example, the price of photovoltaic cells has constitently halved over the last three years) but it’s got a long way to go before it’s viable in the long term.

  • Lessons from history teach us that nuclear has never been profitable.

    When the first nuclear power station, Calder Hall, was being built in the mid 1950s, the public were promised power that was cheaper than coal in per unit terms. This never came to be.

    When Dungeness B was commissioned we were told it would be cheap to construct and maintain. The company which built it went bust and it was not finished until 20 years later, at a hugely inflated cost.

    Nuclear power has never been the cheapest option, and has never been profitable. In the short-term it is easy to avoid costs, but in the long term, the ‘black hole’ of funding relating to cleaning up and disposing of waste, nuclear is shown to be an incredibly expensive option.

    The Lib Dems are right to abstain, if EDF want to pay for new nuclear let them. If they can make it profitable they’ve managed to achieve the unachievable. But lets make sure they don’t lumber the taxpayer with decommissioning costs. That, in my eyes, would be a public subsidy.

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