The UK government has instructed its Health and Safety Executive to carry out a safety assessment of the various power production sectors as a contribution to its recently launched energy policy review, a review that will also consider the anticipated impact of climate change and the need for security of energy supplies.

The government wants the review to include contributions from the public as well as users and analysts. The process is expected to take six months and is being widely seen, at least in part, as a vehicle for the rehabilitation of nuclear power in the public mind as a precursor to government encouragement of a new phase of nuclear build, although the government is playing down the significance of the move, explaining it as a purely precautionary measure. But Green lobbyists believe that it is intended to pave the way for the take up of nuclear build as a way of filling the UK’s looming energy gap (coal and nuclear plants representing 30% of capacity will come to the end of their working lives before 2020) without resorting to increased gas imports.

Trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson, speaking at the official start of public consultation on 23 January, said “I want the widest possible engagement in this vital debate. We need to look at the risks to security of supply, our climate change commitments and, to the long term, to make sure we take the necessary action. There is not a ‘do nothing’ option.”

Elimination of waste is seen as a major plank of policy. Energy minister Malcolm Wicks, who is leading the review, said “Thirty per cent of energy is used in households, [much of it in] consumer electronics, domestic appliances and gadgets, often left needlessly on standby. This squanders more than £740 million ($1.3 billion) worth of energy and results in over four million tonnes of excess carbon dioxide emissions every year, significantly contributing to climate change.”

Key questions for the review centre on ensuring the UK’s long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions is met, the implications of increased dependence on gas imports, a re-examination of long-term liabilities and waste management related to new nuclear build, low-carbon technologies, and ensuring that every home is adequately and affordably heated. Comments are also invited on the long-term potential of energy efficiency measures in the transport, residential, business and public sectors, and potential measures to help bring forward technologies to replace fossil fuels in transport and heat generation in the medium and long term.

The Health and Safety Executive has been charged with investigating the safety, cost and suitability of various energy technologies including nuclear energy, offering expert advice on risks, both to workers and the public, arising from some recent and possible future developments and setting out HSE’s regulatory approach to ensuring these risks are sensibly managed by industry.

Environmental campaigners fear that the government has already made its mind up on the issue and see the study as a precursor to pre-licensing and therefore a major step in the expansion of Britain’s nuclear network, but the government is insisting that no decision had been taken, and that the nuclear study, which will also look into the risks associated with other ways aspects of generating power, such as wind turbines, gas transport and storage and carbon capture and storage, is being conducted to save time in the event of a new build programme. However, it is conceded that the potential for pre-licensing assessment of candidate designs is also a motive.

Other aspects to be reported on include the increasing need for gas storage as the UK becomes an importer, new demonstration projects for carbon capture and storage, and its potential in the UK, and the increasing penetration of renewables and distributed generation.