Plans for up to ten new nuclear power stations could be blocked after the appointment of Chris Huhne, a strongly anti-nuclear Liberal Democrat, as Energy Secretary. Under the coalition agreement, Lib Dem MPs would abstain in a parliamentary vote on a national planning statement on new nuclear plants.
Mr Huhne said yesterday that he would strongly oppose any form of public subsidy for nuclear plants, which remain far more expensive than gas-fired power stations.
He said: “If [power companies] come up with a plan that genuinely involves no public subsidy and that’s the agreement of the coalition Government — and I think frankly a very credible agreement in the current fiscal circumstances — then they will put it through the normal planning process under a new national planning statement and the proposal will go forward in the normal way.
“And we are committed on the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition that we will not vote against that.
“So if there’s a majority in Parliament in favour of a particular proposal — and there are an awful lot of ‘ifs’ here — then new nuclear will go ahead.”
In 2006, Mr Huhne attacked Labour for planning new nuclear plants. In a statement still on his website, he said: “Not only does nuclear cause a great threat to the environment through the large amounts of waste produced, but it is also economically unviable.
“Since the Chernobyl disaster, no nuclear power station has been built anywhere in the world without huge amounts of government subsidy.”
Ben Caldecott, head of UK policy at Climate Change Capital, the low-carbon investment manager, said: “There is a danger new nuclear will be kicked into the long grass. The Lib Dems have been such strong opponents of nuclear that it would be amazing if it was a Lib Dem energy secretary who instigated a new-build programme.
“I suspect that Chris Huhne will do his best to put it on the back burner.”
The Nuclear Industry Association said: “We would certainly hope it wasn’t kicked into the long grass and, as yet, we have no reason to think it will be.” It added that, subject to approval, the industry was planning to open the first new reactor at the end of 2017 and then additional reactors every 18 months-to-two years after that.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both want to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which was created by Labour to speed up the planning process for new nuclear plants.
However, the nuclear industry has been encouraged by the coalition agreement to set a minimum price for permits for emitting greenhouse gases. This would make nuclear more competitive by raising the cost of generating electricity from coal and gas.
Lakis Athanasiou, an analyst at Evolution Securities, said: “The main impact on new nuclear development of a Lib Dem heading DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) is likely to be more subtle than outright opposition, with delays caused by less desire to promote new nuclear and remove obstacles.”