Ministers' meetings with nuclear lobby raise concerns of favouritismUnited Kingdom
Thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money have been spent on special meetings between ministers and the nuclear industry in Britain, prompting allegations the government is giving the sector an unfair advantage over renewable energy.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) has paid more than £8,000 this year for meetings outside government offices with the Nuclear Development Forum – set up to "secure the long-term future of nuclear power generation in the UK", and help make Britain "the best market in the world for companies to invest in nuclear power".
Two of those three external meetings with leading energy and engineering companies were attended by the secretaries of state at the time, Labour's Ed Miliband in March, and Chris Huhne in July, and the third meeting in October by the minister of state, Charles Hendry. Further meetings at the department's headquarters in Whitehall Place took place, for which costs were not provided.
Concern about the preferential treatment given to the nuclear industry by successive governments is likely to be heightened by the decision last month to abolish the parallel Renewables Advisory Board, which met every quarter at the department and once a year outside, as part of spending cuts. The work of the renewables board will be taken on by the Office for Renewable Energy Deployment, for which there is a parallel Office for Nuclear Development.
The developments are likely to fuel concerns among the many environmental campaigners who oppose nuclear power that the industry has unfair access to the government, as well as benefiting from hidden subsidies.
"They [government] have to come clean about all the money spent on assisting nuclear – and this would be part of that," said Mike Childs, head of climate campaigns for Friends of the Earth. "It's important ministers come clean about who they are meeting, when they are meeting, and the issues they are discussing."
In response to a Freedom of Information request from consultant and anti-nuclear campaigner David Lowry, Decc said that it had costed three external meetings with the NDF in 2010, spending £3,910 in March, £2,820 in July, and £1,416 in October.
The coalition has promised there will be no subsidies for nuclear, but more than half Decc's £3bn budget last year was spent cleaning up nuclear waste through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and despite savage cost cuts across the rest of government in last month's spending review, the NDA budget will continue to rise up until 2014-15. There is widespread expectation that minsters will find other ways to ensure new reactors are built, including by setting a "floor" price for carbon that would make nuclear – and other non-carbon emitting renewable energy sources – more cost competitive.
Another common claim is that assessments of the environmental benefits of nuclear power ignore many of the "upfront costs such as mining and the on-going row over how to dispose of radioactive waste, and that claims nuclear power offers more security of supply are undermined by predicted shortages of uranium.
"To be honest, we had concerns about the Renewables Advisory Board, how effective it was," added Childs. "They can set up an advisory board, but nobody's listening. It depends whether the secretary of state and ministers care about an issue."
However not all environmental groups see nuclear and renewable energy in opposition. "I don't think it's a competition about who can have however many committees," said Matthew Spencer, director of the Green Alliance of lobby groups. "The question is: is policy going to be well formed by a regular interaction with people who are delivering on the ground?"
A Decc spokesman also rejected claims that the government was unfairly favouring nuclear power, adding that there were also forums for offshore wind and carbon capture and storage, the hope of catching and storing greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas-fired power stations.
"We do not believe this will lead to an unfair playing field and we are keen to see a diverse energy mix," said the spokesman. "As the UK remains the global leader in operating offshore wind, we are committed to retaining this position by working closely with industry to overcome current barriers and help further investment."
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