The next generation of nuclear power stations may never be built because they will be too expensive following the Japanese tsunami, Nick Clegg has suggested.
The Deputy Prime Minister cast doubt on the future for nuclear power by predicting that a review into existing plants – ordered after the explosion at the Fukushima power station — would recommend higher and more costly safety standards.
The Liberal Democrat leader insisted that no extra government money would be found to meet additional costs and suggested that energy firms would struggle to raise investment from the private sector as a result of the Japanese near-meltdown.
His remarks, made in a briefing to journalists on a visit to Mexico, throw into doubt the future of Britain’s energy supply.
The Government has given provisional approval to the building of at least 10 new nuclear reactors, costing around £50 billion each, at eight sites as part of the pledge to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent in coming decades. Experts have cast doubt on the capacity of the oil, gas and coal sectors to fill the energy gap if the 19 existing reactors are not replaced as they age over the next decade.
The Lib Dems had long opposed nuclear power but agreed in Coalition negotiations last year that existing power stations could be renewed as long as no public funds were involved. They demanded that energy firms no longer benefit from generous public subsidies and be self-funding. Now Mr Clegg believes the extra costs of protecting the new plants could prove unsustainable.
“We have always said that there are two conditions for the future of nuclear power,” he said. “They [the next generation power stations] have to be safe, and we cannot let the taxpayer be ripped off, which is what they always have been in the past.”
Mr Clegg said that, under the terms of the Coalition agreement, he had the right to veto the provision of any additional government funds. He insisted that no further public funds would be made available to fill the gap. “There will be no rowing back from the Coalition agreement on this.”
The Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks are likely to alarm his Tory Coalition partners. He further risked irritating them by insisting that the Government was going ahead with plans for a mansion tax on rich home owners. Mr Clegg claimed that George Osborne, the Chancellor, had agreed that he would only scrap the 50p top rate of income tax in conjunction with a form of mansion tax. Despite Tory opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister told reporters on his tour: “They are linked.”
Mr Clegg also entered the Libyan debate in terms which are likely to trigger still more irritation among some of his Coalition partners. He admitted that military action could result in the Gaddafi regime being replaced by an Islamist government hostile to the West, but insisted it was worththe “gamble.” But it is his words on the future of nuclear power which are likely to most alarm the rest of government and the industry, after appearing to break the consensus on energy policy.
The safety review is being led by Mike Weightman, the chief nuclear officer, who is expected to report this summer. There will be anger in the industry that Mr Clegg is appearing to pre-empt his findings.
Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, who is also a Lib Dem, has also appeared to hint that the Government’s existing nuclear plans may not now be financially viable. In an interview earlier this month, he said one issue “is what the economics of nuclear power post-Fukushima will be”.
Mr Clegg said that if the private firms are able to prove they can deliver all the necessary safety features within their budgets, then he would not stand in their way. But, he said, he anticipated that the “extra liabilities” likely to be involved after the Japanese disaster would make it almost certain that costs would rise.