Huhne pledges to do ‘the right thing’ as he commits to nuclear power

This week saw Lib Dem energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne make a major speech to the Royal Society on the future of nuclear power, with the Coalition committed to a series of new reactors adjacent to existing sites.

The Coalition’s policy has long been trailed — a year ago, Chris put forward his views here on, ‘Myth-busting: what the Coalition’s plans for nuclear energy really mean’. Here Chris acknowledged his shift from opposition to nuclear power to support conditional on no public subsidy — a shift which has majority support from Lib Dem members, at least according to our previous surveys of party members.

In his Royal Society speech, though, Chris set out a full and frank account of his belief that ‘Nuclear policy is a runner to be the most expensive failure of post-war British policy-making, and I am aware that this is a crowded and highly-contested field.’ And he set out the five lessons he believes have to be learned from this failure if nuclear power is to be successful in the future:

1) “Simple and clear objectives matter”. While the UK had two competing national priorities — “energy for the masses, and plutonium for the military – [both] without proper economic or democratic scrutiny” — the US had one simple cost-effective outcome: “a competition for the most efficient and safe reactor design to produce electricity”.

2) “Avoid conflicts of interest”. The UK Atomic Energy Authority, the government’s official adviser on nuclear policy, “was responsible for both promoting and researching nuclear energy … an organisation solely devoted to nuclear energy.”

3) “Keep it simple”. Perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek Chris praises “the extraordinary inventiveness of the British scientific community” for constructing “all eleven Magnox power stations … to different specifications. Even their fuel elements were different sizes.” Nor did the UK learn from that mistake: “The second fleet of advanced gas-cooled reactors were built to a design that almost no-one else used. They did not deliver on budget or on time.”

4) “We forgot about our children, about their future.” While in France and the US, for instance, there was a levy on nuclear power that went into special funds to deal with decommissioning. In the UK, though, “regulatory systems were simply not geared toward long-term protection … [money] was tipped into new projects, in the belief that it would be clawed back from asset sales. Too often, we played double or nothing with public cash.”

5) “We took our eye off the money”. Here is the key issue for Chris: “The nuclear industry was like a expense account dinner: everybody ordering the most expensive items on the menu, because someone else was paying the bill. … When nuclear power was held up to the cold hard light of the market, it proved to be uneconomic. … And when waste started piling up, we effectively crossed our fingers and hoped that it would all go away. We did not act decisively, while our spent fuel and waste stocks grew.”

Those are the lessons of the past. Here is what Chris thinks of the future:

Never again. Never again. This government is determined not to pay for the present by mortgaging the future. We are determined to do the right thing for the long term.

On governance, regulation and financing, we must show that we have learned the lessons of the past. We will make provision for future costs now, and pay down our decommissioning debt.

We will tackle our nuclear legacy. The work on ponds and silos at Sellafield is proceeding as fast as the space and engineering allows: despite our financial situation, there is no financial constraint on dealing with urgent tasks.

Thanks to the foresight of Patricia Hewitt, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is managing radioactive waste at 19 sites across the UK. And my Department has just finished consulting on the long-term management of our plutonium stockpiles, and will publish the results shortly.

Looking to the future, we will prevent a new legacy from building up.

Operators of new nuclear power stations must have secure financing arrangements in place to meet the full costs of decommissioning, and their full share of waste management and disposal costs.

They must submit their plans for approval by the Secretary of State, who will receive advice on the financing from an independent Assurance Board. No more Robert Maxwell style plundering of the public piggybank.

Nor will we fall into the trap of secretly choosing reactor designs. Open competition for the best is our watchword, letting industry and investors assure value for money.

Competition will make the utilities drive a hard bargain with suppliers. No more cost-plus monopolists who just pass on any increase regardless of the effect on consumers.

Regulators are currently carrying out a Generic Design Assessment of new nuclear reactor designs.

A generic assessment means the safety, security and environmental aspects of new reactor designs can be assessed once before applications are made for a whole series of sites. Unlike the old days, when every planning inquiry started from scratch as if another reactor had never been built.

The National Policy Statements on energy also establish that energy infrastructure is needed, so that too does not have to detain a planning application. The Nuclear policy statement identified eight sites which are suitable for new nuclear power stations by the end of 2025.

We will also ensure regulation of the industry is transparent, accountable, proportional and consistent. The industry has acquired a terrible reputation for secrecy, fed by unfortunate incidents like the falsification of MOX data. No more unnecessary secrecy. No more cloak and dagger nonsense. The competent need have no fear of openness, and in my experience the new nuclear industry know that this is the only way to win public trust.

That is why we created the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which is intended to become a new independent statutory body.

It brings together civil nuclear and radioactive transport safety and security regulation in one place. It will house internationally recognised expertise, and will respond quickly and flexibly to current and future regulatory challenges.

And finally, we will continue to encourage investment, research and development – and to help build the skills base needed to support nuclear technology here in Britain. On current plans, total investment in new nuclear will reach some £50 billion.

Each of the reactors planned for the next fleet will deliver investment equivalent to that for the 2012 Olympics. Each plant could create 5,000 construction jobs at peak, and employ a thousand people in operation.

And by the way, there is even some consolation in our unhappy nuclear history. We are developing some world-beating businesses – with expertise in cleaning up old messes.

Nuclear power can play an important future role in our energy security provided there is no public subsidy. We have done everything we can to make sure it is safe, regulated, secure and affordable. Now our partners in the private sector must rise to the challenge and deliver it.

Yes, that means investing. And it means committing to a culture of openness and public trust. Because although we must keep the lights on and the skies clear, there is a higher responsibility here, too.

The decisions made in the early days rubbed against the grain of democracy. They left long-term impacts and heaped costs on future generations.

The decisions we make about energy today will also leave a legacy. Our challenge is to make ensure it is a positive one. No more post-dated bills.

Let me end like this. Sir Winston Churchill, who was half American, once said that the Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, when they have exhausted all the other possibilities.

I approach a new generation of nuclear energy in the same spirit. On nuclear policy, we have exhausted the possibilities. We have made pretty much every mistake human ingenuity could devise. And boy, are we British inventive.
We will now do the right thing.

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  • Leviticus18_23 15th Oct '11 - 2:35pm

    It’s funny isn’t it…? Before the election I remember “rejecting a new generation of nuclear power stations” being mentioned.

    But yes, I know, you didn’t win and Labour left us in this mess, so all the things you said before the election don’t count.

  • Daniel Henry 15th Oct '11 - 3:14pm

    It’s called compromise Leviticus. We didn’t get to block nuclear power altogether but we at least got the opportunity to make sure it is done safety, efficiently and with no public subsidy.

    Only majority governments have the power to fully deliver their manifesto.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Oct '11 - 3:22pm

    But yes, I know, you didn’t win and Labour left us in this mess, so all the things you said before the election don’t count.

    Most of them do count, but there is not one single person who genuinely believes that a junior coalition partner will deliver on everything it said.

    (And only foolish people believe that any UK political party will deliver on everything it says before the election, because that has never, ever happened)

    Politics involves making a lot of promises and not being able to keep them all. Get over it.

    Back to the subject of nuclear power, I don’t particularly like it but I accept that there’s probably no way to both avoid building new reactors and shut down the old ones. In the past, here and in other nations, “no to new nuclear” has really meant “yes to keeping the decades-old existing nuclear plants running longer than they were ever meant to”, and we recently saw in Japan just how bad an idea that was. Our current nuclear reactors are due to shut down over the next ten years, and that needs to happen – we really don’t want to keep those running.

    Germany have found themselves in a very favourable position and are finally able to shut down all their reactors and not build any more. This is because they’ve spent decades building up to it, and are now overproducing power so that they are a net exporter. We are not so fortunate; after ignoring the problem for years, our capacity is stretched and we’re currently in the process of rapidly building more plants before the blackouts start – during the term of this government. None of the plants currently being constructed are nuclear, but that’s just to cover the gap, and in order to shut down the ageing reactors we currently have, something must replace them.

    I’d like the replacement to be renewable energy to the maximum extent possible. But primarily I want it to not be coal, and not be continuing to operate the reactors which are over 30 years old. So I reluctantly accept that achieving those two goals means we’ll probably have to settle for less nuclear power, rather than none.

  • Patrick Smith 15th Oct '11 - 9:56pm

    Nuclear power is carbon neutral but not free from the monumental environmental threat of producing waste that cannot be disposed permanently as a humane safety option.If it remains in the mix it must not be embraced and should not be subject of any state subsidy.

    The race for faster viable renewable alternatives are imperative with the delivery of the Green Bank and pledged 100,000 `green jobs’ to boost employment, especially for the 900,000 unemployed under 25 year olds.

    The real energy fears are that whilst Germany might well have become a net exporter of energy and pledged to eliminate their nuclear power stations this cannot be seen to be done in the UK so soon,where Energy consumers are being held hostage by the nihilistic racking of prices by the energy cartel.i.e.six main monopoly providers.

    It will be the infirm and elderly and poorest families who will be held hostage again with the impending `cold snap’ winter chill as they struggle to heat one room in a home or feed babies with warm milk ,as prices soar, without any sign of `fairness’ being introduced in an inexorable championed free market approach to energy provision.

  • Patrick, why is cold snap in scare quotes? Do you not believe in winter?

    And are you saying energy companies operate in a free market *and* as a monopoly? That sounds somewhat contradictory.

  • Anthony Binder 16th Oct '11 - 8:15am

    @Daniel, It´s called sell-out, not compromise, a compromise is when both parties in a negotiations cut some of their demands, not that one of the parties gets all of their policies, and the other none.

    Funny, there is a party that actually still are against the expansion of nucelar energy, and although the majority of the Lib Dem members still are, the policy makers have all decided to run the party in a completely opposite direction than any majority decisions taken by the members.

    Hi Caroline Lucas, just throw out your nets, your party will be a force to be reckoned coming the next election. And for those who still believe in the policy decisions taken up to the sell out of Lib Dem values. Do something useful, demand that the party policies are the beacons even for the members that is in the government.

    And next idiot that talk about repaying the government debt or ‘there is no money left’ Open a effing book on Bond financing and Fiat money, this is just ridiculous now

  • @Anthony Binder ‘Caroline Lucas, just throw out your nets, your party will be a force to be reckoned coming the next election’
    Dream on Anthony! The Green Party is both potty and authoritarian. I have spent my whole career cleaning up polluted rivers and see their delusional extremism as ultimately damaging to the Green movement.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Oct '11 - 12:27pm

    I definitely endorse the idea of using modern, smaller designs – but sadly, PBRs have come to the game too late. The first demonstration reactors are being built in China right now, to prove the technology, so it’s one generation down the line for mass deployment. By that time, we should no longer need fission power – we should be able to do the same thing as Germany, just one generation later.

    (It will be widely deployed in China, and we might see the first demonstration fusion plant around the same time)

  • Patrick Smith 16th Oct '11 - 12:40pm

    In response to `Ed’ I am concerned on behalf of beleaguered poorer families facing crippling domestic prices as they are at the mercy of the cartel of unit price mad escalating energy providers.

    There has to be more energy price help for consumers,especially if the winter is very cold i.e.above average temperatures.For example in post WW2 years 1947 and 1963 saw the lowest temperatures and high and prolonged snow fall and sustained frozen roads and rail.

    The ability of this `Coalition Government ‘ to check rising energy prices is compromised by the reality that prices for domestic and commercial energy is only by dint of the tendencies of foreign owned cartel member companies who operate as virtual monopolies, for the most part and show no compassion on unsuspecting British consumers as distant customers are seen as fair game for price hypes.

    Current Government policy to encourage a stabilising of the `Euro-zone’ to benefit the UK as 50% traded goods are is also compromised with the 27 EU Member States as it does not preside over the outcome of the `Euro’ crisis and cannot control soaring energy prices directly as they are being set abroad.

    There must be more help applied in a situation where owners of the few and dominant domestic heating energy companies are using their free fall license in the free market, to rack-up energy prices, as it will be the poor and most vulnerable people ,who stand to suffer the consequences, in all cold winter weather.

    I rate Chris Huhne`s energy policies very highly and believe he understands how rising energy costs are impacting on the poorest members of the community but largely due to the fact that he cannot legislate directly against price increase there has to be more micro-energy providers brought into the National Grid to widen the scope,horizons and lower costs in the market.

  • “There has to be more energy price help for consumers”

    There’s not much chance of that, when the funding for the expansion of renewal energy is going to come from the consumer!

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Oct '11 - 6:59pm

    The ability of this `Coalition Government ‘ to check rising energy prices is compromised by the reality that prices for domestic and commercial energy is only by dint of the tendencies of foreign owned cartel member companies who operate as virtual monopolies, for the most part and show no compassion on unsuspecting British consumers as distant customers are seen as fair game for price hypes.

    While there is some truth in that – and the main reason why the government has no direct control is because we import so much fuel, so other nations set our prices – energy is genuinely becoming more expensive. This is not something that will change. The historically low energy prices were an anomaly based on exploiting easily accessible fossil fuels and the externalities of pollution, and now that the former is running out and the latter is being fixed by legislation, energy is going to become a more significant expense for everybody.

  • deeply disappointing to see the Lib Dems supporting costly, unsustainable and accident prone nuclear industry. Please focus seriously on a progressive plan to support the real green economy – energy efficiency, renovation of existing housing stock and public buildings, public transport, renewables, green-tech, waste resource management, community support, apprenticeships in green sector…

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