New nuclear plants on track

Chris Huhne today signalled that plans for new nuclear plants in the UK were on track, after a report into the Fukushima disaster found "no need to curtail" the use of reactors in Britain.

Following the interim report on the lessons that could be learned from the nuclear crisis in Japan, the Energy Secretary said he "could see no reason" why the Government's plans for a new generation of reactors could not go ahead.

But environmental groups warned it was too early to draw conclusions from Fukushima, which was badly damaged by the massive earthquake and tsunami in March, and accused Mr Huhne of rushing to judgment on the safety of reactors in UK.

In the Commons today, Mr Huhne told MPs that safety in the industry remained the coalition's "number one priority", admitting the Government's policy had been delayed by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The Government is planning a new suite of nuclear reactors on existing sites to maintain electricity supplies and cut greenhouse gas emissions as an old generation of power stations are shut down.

Following the Japanese earthquake, Mr Huhne commissioned nuclear chief inspector Mike Weightman to examine the implications for the UK and the lessons that could be learned from Fukushima.

In initial findings published today, Dr Weightman ruled out the need for the UK to curtail the operation of nuclear power stations in light of the situation in Japan.

Dr Weightman said the possibility of similar natural events, which saw a magnitude 9 earthquake and 14-metre tsunami batter the Japanese coast, were not "credible" in the UK.

He also said existing and planned nuclear power stations in this country were of a different design to those at Fukushima, which were rocked by explosions and damage to the reactors after the tsunami shut down power to the plants, knocking out their cooling facilities.

And flooding risks were unlikely to prevent construction of new nuclear power stations at potential development sites in the UK, all of which are on the coast, he said.

Dr Weightman said there was no need to change the current strategy for siting new nuclear power plants.

But he said lessons could still be learned from the nuclear accident in Japan.

The interim report recommended 25 areas for review by the Government, industry and regulators, to determine if there are any measures which could improve safety in the UK nuclear industry.

The areas flagged for review in the report included considering the dependency of nuclear power plants on infrastructure such as electricity supplies off-site and the loss of power over a long period of time, the layout of sites, flooding and sea level protection and emergency response plans.

The report found no "gaps in scope or depth" in the safety assessment measures for nuclear facilities in the UK, or any "significant weaknesses" in the UK nuclear licensing regime.

It also said there would be considerable scope for lessons about human behaviour in severe accidents that would be useful for enhancing contingency plans and training in the UK for such events.

Dr Weightman said: "The extreme natural events that preceded the accident at Fukushima - the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent huge tsunami - are not credible in the UK.

"We are 1,000 miles from the nearest fault line and we have safeguards in place that protect against even very remote hazards.

"Our operating and proposed future reactor designs and technology are different to the type at the Fukushima plant.

"But we are not complacent."

Mr Huhne said he would consider all 26 recommendations made by Dr Mike Weightman, whose final report will be made in September.

He told MPs: "My officials will review carefully the interim report but from my discussions with Dr Weightman I see no reason why we should not proceed with our current policy, namely that nuclear can be part of the future energy mix as it is today providing that there is no public subsidy."

But Dr Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace warned that the review had essentially said the industry should "go away and think about" safety, which he said many people would regard as complacent and would not inspire confidence in Britain's nuclear regulators.

"Even as the struggle to control Fukushima reactors continues, it appears Huhne has rushed to judgment on safety of reactors to keep the timetable for new nuclear power on track," he added.

Friends of the Earth's head of energy, Mike Childs, said it was too early to draw conclusions from the ongoing Fukushima nuclear accident, and that the UK does not need to gamble with nuclear power to supply its electricity needs.

However industry and unions welcomed the report's findings.

The union Unite, which represents 40,000 workers in energy and utilities, called on the Government to "get on with the job" of creating the right environment for low-carbon energy power, including commissioning the first new build nuclear power station for a generation at Hinkley Point.