The future of nuclear energy in this country took some serious blows last week, which means more uncertainty for construction
As he grapples with the UK’s flatlining economy, the country’s place in Europe, the Islamist threat in north Africa and gay marriage, the prime minister has another major headache to contend with: nuclear power.
For nuclear proponents, who include David Cameron and his Cabinet, this has been a truly awful start to the year. First, the only area of the UK considering playing host to a long-term storage facility for the country’s nuclear waste, Cumbria, last week pulled the plug on the £12bn scheme.
Then Monday brought a double whammy of bad news: Centrica, the only UK firm still involved in the proposed new generation of nuclear power stations, withdrew its investment. Then MPs released a damning report on current waste processing site, Sellafield, warning that its steeply rising lifetime cost - now standing at £67.5bn - shows no signs of slowing.
While Centrica’s move - which it blamed on the mounting delays and costs of EDF’s proposed nuclear power plants in Somerset and Suffolk - is a clear setback, it is the decision by Cumbria county council that is the real body blow. This long-mooted underground storage depot, itself a major infrastructure project, was supposed to be a key part of the plan for nuclear to supply 40% of the country’s power by 2030 - but it now appears in real doubt.
So what does this mean for a construction industry eager to help design and build the UK’s low-carbon energy infrastructure? Sadly, it means even more uncertainty. When the coalition came to power in 2010, nuclear, while controversial, was viewed as one of the more tried-and-tested routes to clean energy. Today, that route is beginning to look more than a little rocky. That is a big problem for firms involved in the nuclear sector such as Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke and Atkins.
It also shortens the odds on the government turning to more experimental energy sources, such as the proposed £30bn Severn barrage tidal energy scheme. While this visionary project comes with its own host of major challenges, it is estimated that the Severn barrage could provide as much energy as three or four nuclear power stations. The question is now: which option really looks the most far-fetched?
Since launching in the first issue of 2013, Building’s Green for Growth campaign - which calls on the government to do more to support the green economy - has attracted remarkable backing from key industry organisations and firms, as well as from leading MPs. This week, former Lib Dem communities minister Andrew Stunell and prominent green Tory Zac Goldsmith tabled an early day motion in parliament in support of the campaign, while the Tory chairman of the Commons energy and climate change committee, Tim Yeo, also added his name to the list.
But every name counts. If you support Green for Growth and its five key aims, please sign up now. You can read more about it and add your name at www.building.co.uk/sustainability/green-for-growth
Will Hurst, assistant editor