Brown calls for eight new nuclear plants

Monday, July 14, 2008

Britain must build "at least" eight new nuclear power stations during the next 15 years to replace its ageing plants and contribute to a "post-oil economy" that is cleaner and much more efficient than in the era of "cheap energy and careless pollution", Gordon Brown signalled last night. The first new reactors could feed electricity into the national grid by 2017.

Ministers want the private sector to make the running, but fear that the parallel contraction of the UK's coal and oil-fired generating capacity, on environmental grounds, will trigger a serious energy gap unless the government moves decisively.

The prime minister called for "a renaissance of nuclear power" more than 20 years after major power station crises at Three Mile Island in the US and the Soviet plant at Chernobyl put a brake on nuclear stations as a growing energy source. In doing so, he pushed the government's explicit commitment to a nuclear agenda further than he has previously done - amid growing concern about global oil prices and the need to find alternatives.

Brown said: "Britain is moving quickly to replace its ageing fleet of nuclear power stations. All around the world I see renewed interest in this technology, as countries contemplate the alternative - continued oil dependence and unchecked climate change."

Critics of nuclear power will be dismayed, but the industry may welcome an end to what some have regarded as foot-dragging since the 2003 energy white paper. Prominent figures in the climate change debate, including the government's former chief scientist, Sir David King, have endorsed the nuclear path.

Brown used a speech to President Nicolas Sarkozy's "Club Med" conference of EU and Mediterranean states in Paris to set out a five-point plan for an oil replacement strategy, involving action at personal, local, national and international level and a range of energy options, from solar and wave power to clean coal and nuclear.

The prime minister did not directly mention the need for at least eight medium-sized power stations, each generating about 1.2 gigawatts of electricity, enough to replace the 10 gigawatts supplied by nine existing plants, all but one of which are due to become obsolete by 2023. But aides say that is the figure he has in mind. It caught some MPs by surprise: "We don't normally do numbers," said one. Brown believes that this year's reform of planning procedures for big projects - passing "strategic need" decisions to an independent commission - will prove crucial to a rapid return to nuclear.

A Downing Street official explained: "The industry will not make the long-term investment required to build a new nuclear power station if they think the government is not totally committed to nuclear energy. That is why the Tory vote against the planning bill was so dangerous." Brown is irritated by David Cameron's green point-scoring which, he believes, lacks substance.

Sizewell B, in Suffolk, the only plant not yet set to close, opened in 1995, 12 years after the start of a two-year public inquiry and a go-ahead in 1987, the year after Chernobyl. Until Finland recently resumed its programme, no nuclear station had been built in the US or Europe since then.

It is widely expected that the existing nuclear sites, at Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Dungeness and Bradwell will be used for new plants - possibly more than one per site. Ministers intend to confirm the government's preferred sites by 2010.

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