Back to News
says he still backs government's 'three-pronged' energy approach but Fukushima
could make nuclear unviable.
Britain may back away from the use of nuclear
energy because of safety fears and a potential rise in costs after the Fukushima
disaster, says Chris Huhne, the energy secretary.
In an interview with the Observer, Huhne insisted that he would not "rush to
judgment" until the implications of the disaster were known and a report into
the safety of UK nuclear plants by the chief nuclear officer, Dr Mike Weightman,
was complete. The interim findings are due in May.
"I am not ruling out nuclear now," said Huhne. But he said events in Japan could
have profound long-term implications for UK policy, which is based on a
three-pronged "portfolio" approach: a commitment to nuclear energy; the
development of more renewable energy, such as wind and sea power; and new
carbon-capture technology to mitigate the damaging environmental effects of
fossil fuel-fired power plants and industrial facilities.
a Liberal Democrat, said that Britain was in a very different position from
Japan, which was vulnerable to strong earthquakes and tsunamis. The UK also used
different types of reactors. But he conceded that the Japanese disaster was
likely to make it more difficult for private investors to raise capital to build
the eight new reactors planned by the government. "There are a lot of issues
outside of the realm of nuclear safety, which we will have to assess. One is
what the economics of nuclear power post-Fukushima will be, if there is an
increase in the cost in capital to nuclear operators."
He said that after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US 32 years
ago, it became more difficult to raise money for nuclear investment. "After
Three Mile Island in 1979, nuclear operators found it very hard to finance new
said he remained wedded to the "portfolio" approach, but added that nuclear
energy's future, as part of the mix, had become more uncertain as leaders of
other nations, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, openly questioned
its future. "Globally, this undoubtedly casts a shadow over the renaissance of
the nuclear industry. That is blindingly obvious," he said.
Any move away from nuclear – while certain to be welcomed by many Lib Dems –
would alarm many in the Tory party. Tim Yeo, the Conservative chair of the
environment and climate change select committee, said any such shift would be a
huge mistake. "If Britain abandons or significantly delays its programme of
building new nuclear power stations, there are three inevitable consequences.
First, electricity prices will rise. Second, Britain will not be able to meet
its carbon emission reduction targets. And third, the risk that the lights will
go out will significantly increase.
"This is because other forms of low-carbon energy, such as solar or offshore
wind, are more expensive than nuclear. Solar and wind are not reliable
generators of electricity – on cloudy, still days they produce nothing. So they
have to be backed up by reliable sources of power. If nuclear is not used, that
means more gas or coal, both of which have far higher carbon emissions."
The Department of Energy and Climate Change has carried out its own projections,
which show the UK could – with a massive extra commitment to renewable energy
and successful use of carbon capture on a grand scale – meet its target of
reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 without nuclear energy.
Huhne said: "We can do the 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 without new
nuclear, but it will require a big effort on carbon capture and storage and
However, Yeo said: "Nuclear currently provides almost one-fifth of our
electricity. Nearly all our existing nuclear power stations will shut by 2020.
Demand for electricity will rise steadily from now on as cars, vans, etc start
to use electricity and the heating of buildings relies more on electricity. It
is very likely that without new nuclear power stations we will simply not build
enough other forms of reliable electricity generation in time to replace the
contribution nuclear currently makes."
has asked Weightman to draw up a report into the safety of UK nuclear plants,
assessing their resistance to the kind of natural disasters that could hit this
country, including flooding and storms. But ministers acknowledge that, even if
plants are declared safe, the public perception of nuclear power has been
undermined. The cost of meeting new safety conditions and insuring plants, as
well as satisfying evacuation requirements in the event of a disaster, could
make new reactors economically unviable.
Huhne said ministers needed to show flexibility as untried and untested
technology succeeded or failed along the way. "The whole point about a portfolio
is that over time – a 20-year view – some of those sources [of energy] will turn
out to be much more economic and attractive than others," he said.
After the anti-nuclear Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories last May,
Huhne forged a deal under which plans for a new generation of nuclear would go
ahead, but without public subsidy. He said at the time that the Lib Dems'
preference for meeting the country's energy needs was still to make greater use
of renewable energy, such as wind and sea power.
The deal marked a departure for Huhne from his stance in opposition. In 2007 he
said: "Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology and the government must
stop putting time, effort and subsidies into this outdated industry."