Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Bradon Smith Library item 30 Mar 2017

Secretary of State statement on nuclear power (1979)


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Nuclear power has a long but rather turbulent history in the UK. The country opened the world’s first nuclear power station at Windscale, in 1956. At its peak in 1997, 26 per cent of the nation’s electricity was generated by 19 nuclear power stations. But the huge investment costs needed, and the risks associated with dealing with nuclear waste, have always posed problems for the industry - and resulted in some dramatic fluctuations in government policy.

In 1979, David Howell, the incoming secretary of state for energy in Margaret Thatcher's new government, made a statement to the House of Commons about the government's nuclear power programme. According to Howell, supplies of North Sea oil and gas would decline in the 1990s. "Even with full exploitation of coal and conservation, and with great efforts on renewables energies," he argued, "it will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet this country's long-term energy needs without a sizeable contribution from nuclear power". Howell said industry advice meant the country needed to order “at least one nuclear power station a year” for ten years.

It didn’t happen. The proposal was heavily criticised by both the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and Parliament's select committee on energy, and the government backed away from the commitment. Under the system of state ownership, the government ultimately financed the building of just one new nuclear power station, at Sizewell in Suffolk.

Following the privatisation of the electricity industry, nuclear power fell out of favour again. A 1995 government review found no evidence that new nuclear would be financially attractive to investors, or that another generation of power stations was needed. British Energy, the now privatised owner of the UK’s nuclear fleet, nearly went bankrupt in 2002 and had to be bailed out by the government. A 2003 government white paper dismissed nuclear power as “an unattractive option” for low-carbon electricity, in contrast to renewables.

It looked like nuclear power was dead in the water. But yet again that wasn’t the end of the story. In 2005, prime minister Tony Blair declared to the business community that energy policy was “back on the agenda with a vengeance”. Blair had been convinced by arguments that nuclear, as a low-carbon fuel, was needed to help reduce the UK’s emissions and tackle climate change.

A few months later, the July 2006 energy white paper declared: “new nuclear power stations would make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals”. Anti-nuclear group Greenpeace successfully sued the government for failing to consult sufficiently on the shift in policy. But ultimately, the new direction was set - and reaffirmed in government white papers in 2007 and 2008.

In 2010, Lord Howell, now a Foreign Office minister, once again announced his government’s commitment to a generation of ten new nuclear power stations - three decades after the first time he had done it. In 2013, the government signed a deal with French energy company EDF and two Chinese companies to build the first of the new nuclear power stations at Hinkley, Somerset. It is currently expected to be generating electricity by 2023.


Safe nuclear power and a strong nuclear industry are essential to this country's energy policy. On present prospects, supplies of North Sea oil and gas will be declining in the 1990s. Even with full exploitation of coal and conservation, and with great efforts on renewable energy sources, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet this country's long-term energy needs without a sizeable contribution from nuclear power.

The British nuclear power programme has been in decline over the last decade and the structure of the nuclear industry has been under review for nearly two years. If we are to reverse this trend and ensure that the industry is on a sound footing we must act now.

The Government have, therefore, held urgent consultations with those most directly concerned. We believe that there must be continuing nuclear power station orders if our long-term energy supplies are to be secured and current industrial uncertainties are to be resolved.

Looking ahead, the electricity supply industry has advised that even on cautious assumptions it would need to order at least one new nuclear power station a year in the decade from 1982, or a programme of the order of 15,000 megawatts over 10 years. The precise level of future ordering will depend upon the development of electricity demand and the performance of the industry, but we consider this is a reasonable prospect against which the nuclear and power plant industries can plan. Decisions about the choice of reactor for later orders will be taken in due course.

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