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In the shadow of Fukushima, the UK's nuclear future remains unclear

1 April 2011

Sir David King

The fall out from the Fukushima nuclear power station disaster may be political as well as radioactive, if recent events here in the UK are anything to go by.

Speaking from Mexico on an official trip, The Guardian reported that deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said that uncertainty in the industry could cause private investors to shy away from nuclear and could involve the state having to underwrite its future development with subsidies- a stance that the Lib Dems, given their historical opposition to nuclear power, would be unable to accept.

When the Lib Dems entered the coalition, they dropped this extreme view but maintained an opposition to the state subsidising it, so any change to this could, The Guardian states, cause 'ructions in the coalition'. However, few within the coalition, or even the Opposition see the UK meeting its carbon reduction commitments unless nuclear makes up some part, along with renewables and carbon capture technology, of its green energy mix. Energy firms EDF and Centrica are currently lined up to construct two new plants by 2018 with a projected cost of £10BN, according to The Telegraph newspaper, and while an EDF spokesperson stated that they'd learn lessons from Fukushima, they were keen to emphasise that no subsidies would be requested for their UK nuclear builds. As it stands, the Chief Nuclear Officer, Mike Weightman has been instructed to carry out a review of the safety of all the UK reactors, with his interim findings due in May and final report by September.

Meanwhile, last Tuesday Sir David King, the UK government's former Chief Scientific Adviser and now Director of Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment announced a new report he has compiled with the University of Manchester's Professor Gregg Butler, looking at possible scenarios for how the nuclear industry might develop in the UK. The report cites the need for 'Third Generation reactors' capable of delivering 16GW of energy by 2025, using MOX (Mixed Oxide) fuel reactors, which can reprocess spent uranium and plutonium and turn it back into fuel.

It assumes a high initial outlay to build the necessary reactors of around £50BN, but which can turn a high risk, zero value waste product of current reactor processes into an asset, generating potential returns to the economy of around £10BN. King was keen to point out however that this isn't alchemy- waste is still going to have to be safely stored- a question for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and its ongoing search to find a site for deep geological repository. Cumbria is said to be considering this- but its proposed 2075 completion is a long way off, meaning the expansion of interim storage facilities at Sellafield. King remained upbeat for the industry, saying 'Despite the terrible events in Japan, the economic, safety and carbon case for a new-build programme in the UK has never been stronger'.

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