My watch list  

Nuclear power in the United Kingdom

United Kingdom
energy related articles
Government energy policy
Energy use and conservation
Nuclear power
Solar power
Wind power
Energy efficiency in housing
Climate Change Programme

Dungeness A, B
Heysham 1, 2
Hinkley Point A, B
Sizewell A, B
Dounreay DFR, PFR
Hunterston A, B
Nuclear power plants in United Kingdom (view)
 Active plants
 Closed plants

As of 2006, the United Kingdom operates 24 nuclear reactors generating one-fifth of its electricity (19.26% in 2004). The UK also has major nuclear reprocessing plants, including Sellafield.

The UK's first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1956 and, at its peak in 1997, 26% of the nation's electricity was generated from nuclear power. Since then a number of stations have been closed, and others are scheduled to follow. The two remaining Magnox nuclear stations and four of the seven AGR nuclear stations are currently planned to be closed by 2015. This is a cause behind the UK's forecast 'energy gap', though secondary to the reduction in coal generating capacity. However the oldest AGR nuclear power station was recently life-extended by ten years, and it is likely many of the others can be life-extended, significantly reducing the energy gap.[1]

All UK nuclear installations in the UK are overseen by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.


Economics of UK nuclear power

The Basics

The history of nuclear energy economics in the UK is mixed. Early generation reactors (Magnox) were not built for sole commercial considerations while later reactors faced severe delays (culminating in the Sizewell B taking 7 years to build, after original consultations were in the early 1980s). Costs have also been made problematic by a lack of national strategy or policy for spent nuclear fuel, so that a mixed use of reprocessing and short-term storage have been employed, with little regard for long-term considerations (though a national depository has been proposed).

There is a lack of consensus in the UK about the cost/benefit nature of nuclear energy, as well as ideological influence (for instance, those favouring 'energy security' generally arguing pro, while those worried about the 'environmental impact' con). Because of this, and a lack of a consistent energy policy in the UK since the mid-1990s, no new reactors have been built since Sizewell B in 1995. Costs have been a major influence to this (with Sizewell B having run at a cost of 6p/kWh for its first five years of operation[2]), while the long-lead time between proposal and operation (at ten years or more) has put off many investors, especially with long-term considerations such as energy market regulation and nuclear waste remaining unresolved.

It is important to note that any future project would be private, rather than public. This transfers the running and immediate concerns to the operator, while reducing (although not eliminating) government participation and long-term involvement/liability (nuclear waste, as involving government policy, will likely remain a liability, even if only a limited one). As of the 2007 energy white paper, the Government has endorsed a generally 'pro-nuclear' attitude, although many key details have been left out and any serious decision delayed until the end of 2007. However, in the wake of it, and stemming from the more favourable position already shown in the 2006 energy white paper, British Energy and EDF have expressed interest in a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain.

A Short History

When the rest of the UK generating industry was privatised, the Government introduced the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation, initially as means of supporting the nuclear generators, which remained under state ownership until the formation of British Energy. British Energy, the private sector company that now operates the UK's more modern nuclear plants, came close to bankruptcy and in 2004 was restructured with UK government investment of over £3 billion.

There are several reasons to expect significant improvement if new third generation nuclear power stations are built:

  • modern designs are expected to be simpler, use fewer materials and require less on-site fabrication
  • big-project management techniques have improved over the last 15 years
  • more competitive international process for letting a nuclear construction contract
  • turnkey (fixed price) contracts rather than the cost-plus contracts that were characteristic of past UK nuclear construction [3]

As of 2007 no third generation power station has been completed in Europe, confirming these improvements. The construction of the first such power station, a European Pressurized Reactor at Olkiluoto in Finland, is running 18 months behind schedule, creating doubts that recent improvements sufficiently improve construction costs. However some observers suggest that such delays should be expected as this is the first reactor of its kind and the contractors are not used to working to the standards of the nuclear industry.[4] The project is based on a "turnkey" contract which means the price to the customer is fixed regardless of the delays.


The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), formed in April 2005 under the Energy Act 2004, oversees and manages the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK's older Magnox power plants and associated reprocessing facilities at Sellafield, which were transferred to its ownership from BNFL. BNFL's subsidiary, British Nuclear Group, continues to operate the plants.

In 2005 the cost of decommissioning these sites was forecast to be £55.8 billion [5], however in 2006 cost estimates were increased to about £72 billion. [6]

In addition, latest forecasts indicate that the liabilities incurred by British Energy in relation to spent nuclear fuels have risen to £5.3 billion [7]. The costs of handling these is to be met by the Nuclear Liabilities Fund (NLF), the successor to the Nuclear Generation Decommissioning Fund. Although British Energy contributes to the NLF, the fund is underwritten by the Government.

Waste management & disposal

Most of the UK's radioactive waste is currently held in temporary storage at Sellafield. The issue of long term storage and disposal has remained unresolved despite a number of options being considered over the years.

On July 31, 2006, the latest body to consider the issue - the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) - published its final report [8]. Its main recommendation was that geological disposal should be adopted. This would involve burial at a depth between 200 – 1000m deep in a purpose built facility with no intention to retrieve the waste in the future. It was concluded that this could not be implemented for several decades, and that there were social and ethical concerns within UK society about the disposal option that would need to be resolved as part of the implementation process. Such a repository should start to be closed as soon as practicable rather than being left open for future generations. 14 additional recommendations were also made.

The report was criticised by David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University who resigned from CoRWM in 2005, who said that it was based on opinions rather than sound science[9].

Government policy

2002 Energy Review

In relation to Nuclear power, the conclusion of the Government's 2002 Energy review [10], carried out by the Performance and Innovation Unit, was that:

The immediate priorities of energy policy are likely to be most cost-effectively served by promoting energy efficiency and expanding the role of renewables. However, the options of new investment in nuclear power and in clean coal (through carbon sequestration) need to be kept open, and practical measures taken to do this.

The practical measures identified were:

  • Continuing to participate in international research.
  • Ensuring that the nuclear skill-base is maintained, and that the regulators are adequately staffed to assess any new investment proposals.
  • Shortening the lead-time to commissioning, should new nuclear power be chosen in future.
  • Permitting nuclear power to benefit from the development of carbon taxes and similar market mechanisms.
  • Addressing the problems of long-term nuclear waste disposal.

It went on to state that Because nuclear is a mature technology within a well established global industry, there is no current case for further government support and that the decision whether to bring forward proposals for new nuclear build is a matter for the private sector.

2003 Energy White Paper

The Government's Energy White Paper, published in 2003 and titled "Our Energy Future - Creating a Low Carbon Economy" [11] concluded that:

Nuclear power is currently an important source of carbon-free electricity. However, its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity and there are also important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved. These issues include our legacy waste and continued waste arising from other sources. This white paper does not contain specific proposals for building new nuclear power stations. However we do not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets.

2006 Energy Review

In April 2005, advisers to British Prime Minister Tony Blair were suggesting that constructing new nuclear power stations would be the best way to meet the country's targets on reducing emissions of gases responsible for global warming. The energy policy of the United Kingdom has a near-term target of cutting emissions below 1997 levels by 20%, and a more ambitious target of a 60% cut by 2050.

In November 2005 the Government announced an Energy Review [12], subsequently launched in January 2006, to "review the UK's progress against the medium and long-term Energy White Paper goals and the options for further steps to achieve them" [13].

Critics of nuclear power have suggested that the main reason behind the review is to provide a justification for the building of a new generation of nuclear reactors. They also say that doing so will not be able to help meet the 2010 target due to the length of time needed to plan, construct and commission such power plants, and will be too late to fill the 'Energy Gap' predicted to result from the closure of existing nuclear and coal fired power stations. However backers say nuclear power will help meet the longer term target of a 60% cut by 2050. (wikinews) The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, expressed reservations about the 2006 Energy Review, its dependence upon nuclear power and its likely impact upon London and Londoners.[14]

2007 High Court Ruling

On February 15, 2007, environmental group Greenpeace won a High Court ruling that threw out the government's 2006 Energy Review. Mr Justice Sullivan presiding held that the government's review was 'seriously flawed', in particular in that key details of the economics of the argument were only published after the review was completed.[15] [16] Justice Sullivan held that the review's wording on nuclear waste disposal was "not merely inadequate but also misleading", and held the decision to proceed to be "unlawful". Judicial review proceedings were instigated by Greenpeace in October 2006 [17].

Responding to the news, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said that there would be a fresh consultation, but that a decision was required before the end of 2007. He stated that the government remains convinced that new nuclear power plants are needed to help combat climate change and over-reliance on imported oil and gas.[18]

Greenpeace hold the view that carbon emissions can be cut more cost-effectively by investment in a decentralised energy system that makes maximum use of combined heat and power and renewable energy sources. [19]

Attention was drawn in the media to numerous connections to nuclear industry lobbyists within the Labour Party [1].

2007 Consultation

The 2007 Energy White Paper: Meeting the Energy Challenge[2] was published on May 23, 2007. It contained a 'preliminary view is that it is in the public interest to give the private sector the option of investing in new nuclear power stations'. Alongside the White Paper the Government published a consultation document, The Future of Nuclear Power[3] together with a number of supporting documents.[4] One of these, a report by Jackson Consulting, suggests that it would be preferable to site new power stations on existing nuclear power stations sites that are owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority or British Energy.[5] Greenpeace responded to the release of the consultation document by repeating its position that by replacing the nuclear fleet rather than decommissioning would only reduce the UK's total carbon emissions by four percent[6].

On Sep 7 2007 several anti-nuclear groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, CND and the WWF announced that they had pulled out of the consultation process. [20] They stated that it appeared as if the Government had already made up its mind regarding the future of nuclear power. The business and enterprise secretary, John Hutton, responded in a Radio 4 interview "It is not the government that has got a closed view on these issues, I think it is organisations like Greenpeace that have got a closed mind. There is only one outcome that Greenpeace and other organisations want from this consultation."

Public opinion

In the early 1990s concern was raised in the United Kingdom about the effect of nuclear power plants on unborn children, when clusters of leukaemia cases were discovered nearby to some of these plants. The effect was speculative because clusters were also found where no nuclear plants were present, and not all plants had clusters around them. The latest studies carried by COMARE, Compete on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, in 2003 found no evidence between nuclear power and childhood leukaemia.[21][22]

An opinion poll in Britain in 2002 by MORI on behalf of Greenpeace showed large support for wind energy and a majority for putting an end to nuclear energy if the costs were the same.[23] In November 2005 a YouGov poll conducted by business advisory firm Deloitte found that 36% of the UK population supported the use of nuclear power, though 62% would support an energy policy that combines nuclear along with renewable technologies.[24] The same survey also revealed an unrealistic public expectation for the future rate of renewables development - with 35% expecting the majority of electricity to come from renewables in only 15 years, which is more than double the government's expectation.

In the early 2000s there was a heated discussion about nuclear waste, BBC news leading to the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (see above).


The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was established in 1954 as a statutory corporation to oversee and pioneer the development of nuclear energy within the United Kingdom.

The first station to be connected to the grid, on 27 August 1956, was Calder Hall, although the production of weapons-grade plutonium was the main reason behind this power station.

See also

Energy Portal
  • List of nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom
  • Energy policy of the United Kingdom
  • Energy use and conservation in the United Kingdom
  • Politics of the United Kingdom
  • Civil Nuclear Constabulary
Nuclear power related
  • Nuclear power
  • Nuclear energy policy
  • Economics of new nuclear power plants

In the media

  • June 21 2006,, British Energy: Nuclear power stations need no guarantee or subsidy
  • June 20 2006,, Campbell: Nuclear power stations will only be possible with vast subsidies
  • June 12 2006, The Daily Telegraph, Nuclear stations may stay on line to bridge the gap
  • May 14 2006, The Times, Minister's links to nuclear lobby
  • February 13 2006, The Daily Telegraph, Tories could drop nuclear energy option and go green
  • November 24 2005, The Times, Let's stop tilting at windmills
  • November 23 2005, The Times, Who says nuclear power is clean?
  • May 9 2005, wikinews:A leak at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility on Cumbrian coast, England


  1. ^ Labour and the nuclear lobby, Analysis, Brian Wheeler, BBC NEWS, May 23, 2007
  2. ^ 2007 Energy White Paper: Meeting the Energy Challenge, Department of Trade and Industry, published 2007-05-23, accessed 2007-05-23
  3. ^ The Future of Nuclear Power: Consultation Document, Department of Trade and Industry, published 2007-05-23, accessed 2007-05-24
  4. ^ Energy White Paper Supporting Documents, Department of Trade and Industry, published 2007-05-23, accessed 2007-05-24
  5. ^ Siting New Nuclear Power Stations: Availability and Options for Government, page 24, Jackson Consulting, published 2007-05-23, accessed 2007-05-24
  6. ^ Why Tony Blair is wrong about nuclear power, accessed 2007-05-24
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Nuclear_power_in_the_United_Kingdom". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE