Leading Article: A strategic vision for nuclear power

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S announcement that, for the first time, a nuclear power station is to close on safety grounds will restore some confidence in the industry. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was robust in demanding improvements in the twin reactor plant at Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd. This watchdog has teeth and is prepared to use them. The cost of safety modifications proved too high, and state-owned Nuclear Electric opted for closure. Job losses in this rural area are regrettable but could not, in the face of safety considerations, justify allowing the plant to reopen.

The Government needs now to show similar decisiveness in settling the future of the nuclear industry, both in reprocessing fuel and producing electricity. There are genuine fears that, instead, it will procrastinate and then, too late, take the wrong decisions for short-term political and economic reasons.

The closure at Trawsfynydd does not in itself herald immediate problems at Britain's six other operational magnox stations: their design is different. However, it highlights the fact that within a decade they too will have been retired. Their replacements - pressurised water reactors - are not yet working. The first, Sizewell B in Suffolk, is nearing completion and will be contributing to the national grid from next year, provided the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate gives its safety systems the all-clear.

More important, the Government's nuclear industry review has yet to agree the construction of Sizewell C, comprising two replicas of the Sizewell B model. On this decision rests the future of nuclear-generated electricity in Britain. Without Sizewell C, Britain will be unable to maintain even the current level of output from nuclear plants once the magnox plants have been closed.

The fear is that Sizewell C could be blocked. The economic case for the new plants is strong: they can reasonably be expected to be profitable, producing electricity at prices that will be competitive with any alternatives likely to be available in the next few decades. They would be built to tight safety standards, hammered out during Sir Frank Layfield's public inquiry into the construction of Sizewell B.

However, Sizewell C may never be built because of the short-term cost of capital, which the private sector may be unwilling to fund and which the Government may shy away from because of its budget deficit. In contrast, the Prime Minister has signalled that he supports opening of the new Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, despite its questionable economic prospects. The political fall-out of ditching the project and causing thousands of job losses is likely to sway Mr Major in Sellafield's favour.

Clearly the nuclear industry is at a watershed. Will the Government back the Thorp project, a throwback to a nuclear industry that was featherbedded by the state, or will it press on with Sizewell C, for which there is a clear economic case? These decisions need long-term stategic vision and political courage. Early indications are that the Government may be lacking on both counts, a weakness that is likely to produce the worst outcome for the nuclear industry and consumers.