Building a nuclear future... or not

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The government's strategy for delivering our nuclear energy needs is complacent and lacks credibility. That's the stark conclusion from the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, which has been looking at how well prepared we are to build and manage a new generation of nuclear power stations to replace the current fleet.

After years of stagnation in the industry the share of our electricity generated by nuclear power has fallen to just 16%. The fleet has shrunk to just 10 nuclear power stations producing some 12 gigawatts of electricity, but another nine of those stations are scheduled to close by 2020.

The government has said it wants to see that capacity replaced with a new fleet capable of generating some 16 gigawatts by 2025, and a further expansion of nuclear power to supply up to 40% of our electricity needs by the middle of the century.

So the question is: does the government have a credible plan to deliver on this nuclear future? The answer the committee comes to is, in a word, no. According to Lord Krebs, who chaired the inquiry "We're setting out on this journey with no map, no driver, and no mechanic to fix the car if anything goes wrong."

The problem, the committee claims, is that successive governments have lacked the necessary vision to invest in the research and development infrastructure needed to keep us at the forefront of nuclear technology. The expertise we've built up over previous decades is in danger of being lost as the current generation of nuclear scientists, engineers and regulators reaches retirement.

Even if we adopt what Lord Krebs scathingly describes as an "Argos catalogue" approach - buying a new generation of ready made nuclear power plants off the shelf from overseas producers - we won't have the skilled staff to ensure we can act as an intelligent customer, we won't be able to regulate the new industry or deal with the legacy issues of waste disposal, and we won't be in a position to contribute to the development of new technologies.

Remarkably the report concludes the government doesn't even seem to recognise that there is a problem. Senior officials told the committee that ministers were keeping a "watching brief" on the future development of nuclear power. That, Lord Krebs maintains, is both complacent and lacks credibility.

"If the government continues to keep a watching brief," he says, "there may be no lights on by which to watch the brief".