The UK government has today announced plans to replace the country's existing nuclear power stations to help meet its target of reducing carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. The secretary of state for business John Hutton, who delivered the government's plans in a white paper on nuclear power, said it would be inviting private energy firms to bring proposals to the table for building and maintaining new reactors. However, no planning permission for new nuclear stations has yet been given.

It will be very tight to replace existing nuclear stations on time Paul Howarth, Dalton Nuclear Institute

Nuclear power plants currently generate about a fifth of the UK's electricity. However, all current nuclear reactors in the UK are expected to close by 2023 apart from Sizewell B in Suffolk, which is set to shut by 2035. With the government also keen to reduce carbon emissions, it now sees building new nuclear-power station as the solution to the country's energy needs. "Every new nuclear power station will save the same amount of carbon emissions that are generated from around one million households," Hutton told MPs in the House of Commons.

Government U-turn

The go-ahead for new stations is something of a U-turn for the UK government, which said in a previous energy white paper in 2003 that nuclear power was not the answer to growing energy demands. Although a government review of energy in 2006 came out in favour of nuclear power, Gregg Butler, a science-policy expert at the University of Manchester, thinks that the rejection of nuclear in the 2003 white paper has lost the UK valuable time. "I welcome the government's recognition that nuclear energy is part of a mix with other forms of low-carbon electricity generation like wind and hydropower," he says.

However, as the member states of the Nuclear Energy Agency warned in a report last November, there is a current worldwide shortage of trained workers who could build and design potential new reactors. The government will therefore have a job on its hands recruiting enough science and engineering graduates into the nuclear sector. Paul Howarth, director of research at the Dalton Nuclear Institute in Manchester, hopes that the government's decision will mean that "nuclear science can now be seen as an attractive prospect for future science graduates".

But as it could take around 10 years for new nuclear plants to be commissioned and built, Howarth says that "it will be very tight to replace existing nuclear stations on time". He points out if the government had come out in favour of nuclear power at the time of the last white paper in 2003, then "we would already be at the stage where licences have been approved for new reactors".