Some of our lives pass by unnoticed. When we are gone, it is almost like we were never here. For others, their sole aim in life is to be remembered long after they are gone. Politicians, whether by design or circumstance tend to be remembered for unpopular policy…or war.

UK prime minister, Tony Blair’s decision to back new nuclear build is a brave decision. Not so long ago the decision could have been a hugely unpopular one. Fortunately, he delayed it long enough so that a number of circumstances would see minimal backlash from the industry and more importantly the average UK voter. The UK public is generally more aware of the reality that nuclear is a safe technology. Many are also aware that it will help reduce the threat of global warming. The publicity surrounding the need to combat global warming, combined with concern over energy security and tightening UK generating supply, provided Blair with the opportune moment to put through a policy, which just a few years ago was not an option.

The news has been well received by industry, especially the plans to shorten overall permitting and construction times. Significantly, the government would prevent local planning authorities from blocking new nuclear plants on the grounds that they were not needed. Proposals for a “statement of need” according them national and strategic importance would be published ahead of a White Paper later this year.

Government backing, however, is only just the beginning and is no guarantee that any nuclear plants will be built at all. The review indicated that the government hoped to keep nuclear at about 20 per cent of the generating mix but made it clear that the private sector would have to take the decisions on new investment. Certainly, when all is considered nuclear is a capital-intensive business. It is estimated that some £10-20 billion ($18-37 billion) will be needed just to build ten new plants. And with no experience of building new-generation nuclear plants, these costs could escalate still further. French nuclear specialist, Areva warned of cost and time overruns on the new Finnish nuclear plant at Olkiluoto. The plant will be commissioned in the second quarter of 2010 – one year later than originally planned. Areva says this is nothing unusual when considering the size and the scale of this first of a kind project.

Then there is also the cost that developers will face at the end of the plant’s lifetime. The review stated that the private sector would have to bear all the commercial risk, including the full cost of decommissioning and a “full share” of long term-waste management costs. What full share means is one issue that needs clarification. The cost of decommissioning and long-term waste management is largely an unknown quantity. The Sussex Energy Group, an independent energy research group, said that the cost of dealing with the waste stockpile created during the last 50 years of nuclear power has risen in the last year from estimates of around £65 billion to £90 billion and is predicted to rise further.

While costs are important considerations, industry players will not see it as the main factor in whether the UK is successful in building a new batch of nuclear plants. Having the right framework is far more important. In an interview with the Financial Times, Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy said: “…we are a step closer to the moment when we can make our investment decision. But this is not the end of the process. I don’t think it is the role of the government to say how many plants should be built or what technology should be used. The government should just give the right framework.”

If nuclear is to have a long-term future, this will be the main task for Mr Blair. It will be one that subsequent prime ministers will need to support and continue long after Mr Blair is gone. This decision by the government is one that is certain to be remembered for a long time.

In truth, most of us would like to be remembered long after we are gone. Musicians, great sports people and inventors, for example, achieve a certain level of ‘immortality’. The ink on this paper, along with archived documents, may provide me, like other writers, a slightly longer lasting legacy than most. But for the average person, our legacy is passed to our children. Often we only leave memories and tales that may last a couple of generations. The legacy left by Tony Blair and subsequent governments will last many generations. Let’s hope the nuclear legacy is a good one.

Junior Isles
Publisher & Editorial Director