This morning’s Tory victory sweep in the Labour stronghold of nuclear heartland Copeland has coincided with the publication of a Lords report criticising the government’s nuclear energy policy.
The nuclear question could not have been more central to yesterday's by-election contest in the heart of Britain’s West Cumbrian ‘energy coast’. 10,000 people are already directly employed by the nuclear energy sector based around Sellafield plant, while Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Moorefield, is due to come online in 2024 and create 20,000 more jobs.
Triggered by Labour MP Jamie Reed resigning in order to work for Sellafield power plant, the by-election was won by Conservative MP Trudy Harrison, who not only used to work in the nuclear sector but has a husband who still does.
Ultimately even the threatened closure of a local hospital maternity unit in Copeland did not pack as much of an electoral punch for Labour as the issue of the area’s two adjacent nuclear plants did for the Tories. In a much-derided ITV interview shortly before the election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused five times to give his backing to the Moorside plant project.
Closer to Westminster, a damning report published today by the House of Lords has highlighted the government’s own problems when it comes to formulating viable nuclear energy policy. It accuses the government of “fragility” in its development of nuclear contingency plans, and criticises the priority given to the reduction of energy emissions over dealing with the risk of a supply gap created by the closure of every coal-fired power station in the UK by 2025.
Theresa May has designated the nuclear energy industry as one of the five key areas needing government support as part of the government’s post-Brexit industrial strategy.
But the difficulty lies in balancing the UK’s green energy commitment, which it intends to honour by decommissioning all except one of the UK’s existing nuclear power stations by 2030, with the resulting job losses and cost.
Last week’s announcement by Toshiba that it may renege on its commitment to financing the Moorside energy plant project has forced the government to consider taking on a minority stake in the £10 billion project. This raises the controversial spectre of public investment in a costly and risky industry.
Foreign policy concerns have also come to the fore after the government’s recent decision to withdraw from Euratom, the European nuclear research agency. These are compounded by the security implications of building an energy strategy around foreign investment from countries like China, in the case of plans for a new plant in Essex.