Lib Dems and Tories agree to disagree on new nuclear

The latest version of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats offers a mass of environmental and low carbon policies. But the policy on new nuclear power stations is awkward.

The new coalition government has found plenty of green policies to agree on, with nuclear power the glaring exception.1

The result is an agreement to disagree, making it one of the oddest bullet points in the 33-page coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats published by the government in mid-May.

The Conservative leadership wants new nuclear power stations as part of an energy strategy which meets carbon budgets and gives security of supply – provided they require no public subsidy.

But the Liberal Democrats, who have provided the government’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, oppose nuclear power. Their manifesto said it was “a far more expensive way of reducing carbon emissions than promoting energy conservation and renewable energy”.

Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate ChangeAnd Chris Huhne, the new secretary (pictured), told the BBC the day after he was appointed that he doubted any proposals for new nuclear plant free of subsidy would come forward.

Yet the government’s Infrastructure Planning Commission, now to be abolished, or at least downgraded, is still anticipating the planning application for the first new nuclear power station being lodged in December this year. This would be for EDF’s Hinkley Point plant in Somerset. The company also told ENDS it expected to make a planning application this winter.

But before applications are considered, the new government will need to agree on a new national policy statement (NPS) on nuclear power. This sets the policy framework on which decisions on individual applications for planning permission will be based. A draft version was issued by the energy and climate department last November (ENDS Report 418, pp 31-32).

DECC is expected to issue a final version sometime, and the new government has pledged it will be put to Parliament for a vote. The deal is that a Liberal Democrat spokesperson can speak against the NPS, but Liberal Democrat MPs will abstain rather than oppose it.

This means that if the policy is to be implemented, the Conservatives will depend on Labour either voting for the NPS or abstaining.

As to actually deciding whether to grant planning permission for any proposed new power plant, the two parties want the secretary of state, not the IPC, to be the decider. The agreement says there will be “an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for [deciding on] major infrastructure projects.”

One suggestion is that if Mr Huhne is still in the job when the time for that decision comes, perhaps a year or two from now, he will remit it to one of the two Tory ministers in his department.

Critical to the prospects of any new nuclear power stations are measures to lift the slumped price of carbon in the EU emissions trading scheme. The coalition agreement signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg promises to introduce a floor price for carbon, in line with pre-election Tory plans (ENDS Report 423, pp 14-15).

It also pledges to reform energy markets to deliver security of supply and investment in low-carbon energy. This suggests low-carbon generators such as nuclear will be subsidised by electricity consumers – the previous government’s policy – rather than by taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Brave face

Utilities with an interest in investing in new nuclear plant put a brave face on the coalition agreement, but they are worried.

Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, welcomed “that the new government has made clear its policy on nuclear energy through its commitment to practical steps, so that new nuclear construction becomes possible.

“We believe nuclear power is the lowest cost low-carbon option and can be built in the UK without subsidy.”

The coalition agreement offers numerous environmental and low-carbon policies, all of them drawn from one or both of the two parties’ manifestos (ENDS Report 423, pp 30-34). Many of them represent a continuation of the last Labour government’s policies.

The Tory pledge to increase the proportion of tax revenues accounted for by environmental taxes is in the document.

Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for TransportCaroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural AffairsThe new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a Conservative, Caroline Spelman MP (pictured), as are all the other ministers in DEFRA.

The new Secretary of State for Transport is Tory Philip Hammond (pictured). Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who won praise for green campaigning as a former shadow environment minister, has been appointed ‘green’ transport minister with responsibility for local transport, buses, walking, cycling and “alternatives to travel”. 

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