The UK government was slammed for clinging to nuclear as part of its decarbonisation strategy, as it released its long-delayed Energy White Paper on Monday.

The Energy White Paper – the country’s first since 2003 – is seen as crucial to providing a legislative framework to underpin a blizzard of policies unveiled so far this year, including a pledge to quadruple offshore wind capacity to 40GW by 2030, as the UK hones its plans to hit its 2050 net-zero target that's among the world's most ambitious and meet power demand that's expected to double by mid-century.

The White Paper puts offshore wind at the core of a push for Britain to “have overwhelmingly decarbonised power in the 2030s” – but controversially also confirmed it will continue to look at options to finance “at least one” new nuclear project in the current five-year parliament.

The UK has reopened talks with EDF over a new £20bn ($27bn), 3.2GW plant, Sizewell C in Suffolk, eastern England. The French group is already leading construction of the Hinkley Point C project in southwest England that has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

Critics say nuclear is expensive and dangerous compared to renewables, which can now offer gigawatt-scale capacities at far less cost per megawatt hour.

Caroline Lucas, a member of parliament for the Green Party, said: “If the government wants to 'decarbonise our economy in the most cost-effective way', rule out nuclear for good.

“We need a rapid transition to 100% renewables.”

Environmental group Greenpeace UK said: “Whilst ministers have been talking to EDF about Sizewell C for years, the offshore wind industry has got on with the job and delivered.

“If discussions with the majority French-state-owned company ever progressed, the UK public will need to stump up billions of pounds in advance. This money would be far better spent on a flexible grid that can handle the shedloads of cheap renewables increasingly powering the UK.”

Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at research group the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) commented: “There is little evidence to suggest Sizewell will not be blighted by the same issues that have struck other European nuclear projects, which under the expected funding models would see Brits footing the bill for Sizewell many years before it starts generating power.

“The government has been advised to hold fire on new nuclear power stations beyond Sizewell, as the cost of renewables and of the technologies needed to ‘firm’ their output continues to plummet.”

Marshall added: “It is now clear that offshore wind will form the backbone of our power system, with nuclear playing a supporting role. The key is to get the balance right, and to do so in a way that keeps energy bills as low as possible.”

'Decisive and permanent shift'

The Energy White Paper is built around a core of policies, many previously announced in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's '10-point plan' from November, that the government detailed in a statement on Monday.

As well as the 40GW of offshore and 1GW of floating wind by 2030, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the UK would:

  • Set up a UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 1 January 2021 to replace the EU’s version, which the country is leaving post-Brexit.
  • Invest £1bn in "state-of-the-art" carbon capture storage in four industrial clusters by 2030 and "at least one fully net zero cluster by 2040".
  • Push for 5GW of renewable hydrogen production by 2030, "backed up by a new £240m net-zero Hydrogen Fund for low carbon hydrogen production".
  • Shift away from fossil-fuel boilers. "By the mid-2030s we expect all newly installed heating systems to be low carbon or to be appliances that we are confident can be converted to a clean fuel supply".
  • Move to "support North Sea oil and gas transition for the people and communities most affected by the move away from oil and gas production".
  • Spend £1.3bn to speed the rollout of charge points for EVs, supporting earlier plans to phase-out sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

The British government expects the measures to underpin "220,000 jobs in the next 10 years. This includes long-term jobs in major infrastructure projects for power generation, carbon capture storage and hydrogen, as well as a major programme of retrofitting homes for improved energy efficiency and clean heat".

UK energy secretary Alok Sharma, who will host the COP26 UN climate summit next year, claimed: “Today’s plan establishes a decisive and permanent shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels, towards cleaner energy sources that will put our country at the forefront of the global green industrial revolution.”

Critics have pointed to a lack of detailed planning to accompany the UK's aspiration, with issues such as the fitness of the power network to handle vast new levels of renewable output from offshore wind said to be yet to be properly addressed.