Lord Hutton on nuclear energy – Interview
Anoosh Chakelian (Editor – Total Politics) talks to Lord Hutton, chair of the Nuclear Industry Association, former business secretary, and Labour’s ‘nuclear renaissance man’
AC: Your pro-nuclear stance in government was quite outspoken at the time. Why were you so bold?
JH: It was something I’d thought about very carefully, both inside and outside of government. And it’s something I believed – and still believe – is essential if we’re going to create the right kind of balanced energy policy for the future and to invest in new technologies, which is incredibly important. Civil nuclear energy is going to be globally significant for business, and Britain should be part of that. It’s going to happen, and we’ve got some fantastic engineering and nuclear skills in Britain that can really lay the foundations for tens of thousands of important jobs.
AC: What were the main arguments you came up against when you put these views forward?
JH: In government, the debate on climate change shifted the parameters in favour of nuclear. We needed to decarbonise our power generation industry, and nuclear is the cheapest form of low-carbon energy. Outside of government, yes, of course there are arguments that people put up against nuclear, but it is interesting how public support is very strong for it – I think they understand its benefits.
AC: And what about its detractors?
JH: The detractors, the opponents… well, some of it is ideological, some of it is environmental – I do respect that energy choices are sometimes difficult ones, and there isn’t an easy way forward. By all means have a mix of energy with renewable sources as part of the way forward, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves; if we really are serious about getting ourselves off the fossil fuel fix, we’re going to need more electricity, not less. The job of the industry is to continue to make the modern case for nuclear – low carbon, efficient, safe.
AC: Is the government providing enough financial certainty for potential nuclear investors in the UK?
JH: There are two very strong bids in, and I think there is an appetite out there among investors to make the decision on nuclear in the UK. There is, however, more to be done, and the government has to do it, to reassure investors about the certainty surrounding these new agreements in the electricity market. I think this is one of those cases where we’ve got to realise that the market has its limitations – it’s not on its own going to make the switch to low-carbon sources of energy, because they’re not as cheap as the cheapest form of carbon. That’s the reality. So if we are serious, then it is first and foremost the responsibility of the government to set the market in the right direction, and if it can do that properly then I don’t think there will be an issue as far as investment is concerned.
AC: So is the government going the right way about this?
JH: Broadly it is. It’s trying to do the right thing, but the devil is in the detail. There is inevitably going to be some discussion about the detail of the policy. There is a complex set of discussions underway, and we’ve got to approach them in a realistic frame of mind. There are really big, strategic issues at stake here when it comes to securing the energy we need for the future at the best possible price.
AC: Is the government committing future energy users to very high prices by pursuing new nuclear build so vehemently?
JH: No, I don’t personally believe so. You’ve got to look at the costs of all of the low-carbon sources. It’s pretty clear now that offshore wind is at the high end of the scale of cost, and nuclear is at the low end. I personally accept that it’s likely that the move to low carbon – because we’re doing it quickly, we need to do it quickly – is going to come with a cost. However, bills would rise more slowly with nuclear than they would if we relied on other forms of low-carbon energy.