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

by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2011

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 LibDemVoice.org, ‘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.