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Atomic Reaction
Planning – 2 April 2010

Councils with nuclear power stations on their patches are unlikely to oppose further development as long as local impacts are considered, says Mark Smulian

Nuclear power is in a category of its own when it comes to public concern about major infrastructure. People might not like airports, motorways or wind turbines near their homes but they, and local planners, broadly know how such structures will behave. Incidents at nuclear power stations are more unpredictable.

Friends of the Earth describes the technology as "dangerous and expensive". It says power stations could become terrorist targets, toxic waste needs generations of careful management and nuclear plants increase the availability of deadly materials. Amid such lurid warnings, public concern will make consideration of this form of development a particular challenge for the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) as it assesses the government's chosen locations.

Public fears will be a substantial factor in the debate. This has already influenced the government to choose ten potential sites that have existing reactors on or near to them. Proximity to reactors tends to make the public in these localities less fearful of the nuclear industry, in some measure out of gratitude for the jobs it brings. But lengthy consultation will need to be completed before the IPC arrives at its decisions.

Nuclear power opponents will be watching like hawks for procedural blunders. The question of who pays for the process also looms large (see panel). The answer is the nuclear industry and the local authorities concerned. This has already led to pained protests from councils obliged to find money to service a planning process where the final decision will not be theirs.

When he named the sites, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said nuclear power would be an essential component of the transition from fossil fuels. "The current planning system is a barrier to this shift," he declared. "It does not serve the interests of energy security, the low-carbon transition or people living in areas where infrastructure may be built for the planning process to take years to come to a decision."

In the 1980s, Sizewell B nuclear power station took six years to secure planning consent, yet only 30 of the 340 inquiry days were devoted to local issues. Miliband believes that the new system will give local people more opportunity to have a say. Although the IPC will work within the finalised national policy statement on nuclear power, it stresses its detachment from political pressure. "The commission will ensure proper consideration of national policy, need and local impacts. In doing so, sustainable development and community engagement will be at the heart of the process," it promises.

Plenty of people will seek to hold it to this standard. EDF Energy's plans for a third reactor at Sizewell are on the government's shopping list. "We are not the planning authority but we will have to act as a proxy for the IPC and run the consultation," says Suffolk Coastal District Council deputy leader and planning portfolio holder Andy Smith. According to Smith, anti-nuclear feeling in the area is vociferous but limited. "People generally are quite comfortable living with Sizewell, but there are some reservations. That makes it delicate and the council's position is neither pro nor anti-nuclear," he says.

"We are in favour of the broad principle of decisions being taken nationally by the IPC as we do not have the resources to run a full-scale public inquiry," Smith explains. But he adds: "It ought to be a process where it is possible to arrive at a 'no' answer if that is what the local consultation and evidence points to, but I don't think that the IPC has been set up to say no. The problem is that it was set up by the government to ensure that it gets the 'right' answer."

The Sizewell C proposal brings local issues to the fore. The site lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty and Sizewell B's vast dome can be seen for miles. "We are concerned about the mass and bulk of any Sizewell C. Some designs have a very tall chimney, which we don't like," Smith says. Distribution systems are another worry. The council wants National Grid and EDF to upgrade existing power transmission lines rather than festoon the area with new pylons.

If Sizewell C goes ahead, Suffolk Coastal would like EDF to pay for a bypass for four villages on the A12 and homes for construction staff. "There were some social problems when we had construction workers living in the area building Sizewell B," says Smith. "We think that they should be housed on the Olympic model. The Olympic village will be used for local affordable housing when the games end and the same should happen here. The contractors should build homes that would be used for local social housing once the reactor is complete."

Nuclear expertise fits local strategy

West Cumbria has lived with nuclear power since the 1950s. Copeland Borough Council is relaxed about new reactors at or near Sellafield. Acting chief executive Fergus McMorrow says a new reactor would fit with Copeland's energy coast strategy, which seeks to make the area a world centre of nuclear and renewable energy output and expertise. "A new reactor has raised the sort of concerns you might expect from people who find they might have a nuclear reactor built next to them," he says.

There are planning issues to be considered, but the council supports nuclear industry replacement at Sellafield. McMorrow hopes to see the energy coast and deliver, protect jobs and attract higher-income ones than the area now attains. The Universities of Manchester and Central Lancashire have opened campus outposts in Whitehaven as part of the area's focus on energy. "That means that we need to plan for a change in the mix of houses so that there are more higher-end properties," he says.

Further down the west coast, Lancaster City Council is hoping that the proposed replacement reactor at Heysham will help it to benefit from the energy coast concept. "The council wants to be fully involved in the initiative, not just because of the power station option but because of our task in facilitating grid connections and the role of the University of Lancaster in providing the skills to support the sector," says head of planning services Andrew Dobson.

"There is also a need for us to help other local authorities provide the key infrastructure and sustainable community facilities to ensure that a viable and locally accessible workforce can allow the generation industry to function," he adds. "This means attractive housing supply, leisure and shopping to attract key workers, improved roads and education facilities."

On the east coast, the reactor at Hartlepool is due to be decommissioned by 2014. Hartlepool Borough Council says it is important to local employment, both in terms of the number of jobs and their quality. "We have been coming to a view on the proposed new reactor and have commissioned work through the local strategic partnership on the economic and environmental impacts of the station, as well as the economic implications of decommissioning the existing reactor," says assistant director of regeneration and planning Stuart Green.

At Isle of Anglesey County Council, where there has long been concern about the local effects of lost jobs when the Wylfa reactor is decommissioned later this year, council leader Clive McGregor welcomes the possibility of a replacement. "We should not underestimate the significance of the potential investment, which could be in the region of 8 billion. This is comparable to the investment in London in preparation for the 2012 Olympics," he says.

Council attitudes in areas with a nuclear presence suggest that few - if any - would try to block construction of new reactors even if they were still the planning authority. But they must now ensure that the IPC pays heed to planning gain and mitigation as it grapples with the white-hot issue of nuclear power.

Paying for the process

The Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) says local authorities "have a key role to play in the new system for approving national infrastructure". The Planning Act 2008 places a duty on promoters to consult councils at pre-application stage and publish a statement of community consultation.

If the IPC accepts an application, councils can appear at pre-examination meetings and submit a local impact report. But as Copeland Borough Council acting chief executive Fergus McMorrow warns in a letter to planning minister John Healey, councils cannot foot the bill for the work required to assist the IPC.

"A lack of resources may mean that local authorities are unable to fulfil the roles allotted to them. As a result they may slow down the application process, be unable to give meaningful support or at worst stand outside the process altogether," says McMorrow. "This will reduce community engagement and increase the potential for opposition."

Suffolk Coastal District Council's planning department certainly does not have the spare capacity to deal with the task, says planning portfolio holder Andy Smith. "I assume that we would be looking at employing temporary staff. But when you consider that a one per cent increase in our council tax raises only about 57,000, you can see that employing three or four planners is a big financial issue."

The DCLG responds: "Current planning inquiries can last years and require councils to pay for a significant amount of expensive legal representation. The new regime intends to reduce these costs and it is up to individual authorities to decide how they engage with the process."