Friday, January 11, 2008

New nuclear: energy solution, white elephant or red herring?

Even as the UK moves forward with plans to construct 7,000 offshore wind turbines that would generate enough electricity to meet the needs of every household in Britain, the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants has received the backing of Business Secretary John Hutton.

These are the diametrically opposed utility-scale options that are currently being debated in the EU. There are, of course, many other strategies that lie along the spectrum between these two "bookends" including maximizing energy efficiency and conservation measures and implementing more distributed generation (small-scale renewable technologies like solar and wind built close to end-user).

Growing demand and global climate change are the primary drivers. The twelve degrees of freedom are never lost. However, as nations take longer to act on their energy options, the degrees of freedom become more restricted. (GW)

New nuclear plants get go-ahead

A new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK has been given formal backing by the government.

Business Secretary John Hutton told MPs they would give a "safe and affordable" way of securing the UK's future energy supplies while fighting climate change.

He said any plants would be built at or near existing reactors by private firms and said he hoped the first one would be completed "well before 2020".

Critics say new reactors will be expensive, dirty and dangerous.

The government will not be building any reactors itself - but it says it will take steps, such as streamlining the planning process and identifying likely sites, to encourage private operators to build them.

Mr Hutton conceded that no nuclear plant had been built anywhere in the world without public money - but he insisted there would be no subsidies from the UK government.

"It is a matter for the power companies to bring forward proposals on the basis that there will be no public subsidies," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

Public funds would only be provided in the "very unlikely circumstances of an emergency at a nuclear plant," added Mr Hutton.

According to its white paper, the government will not offer extra incentives to invest in nuclear power, but some tax advantages may be available to firms hit by decommissioning costs to ensure a "level fiscal playing field" with other forms of electricity generation.

The government has also yet to decide how much new nuclear operators should pay towards the cost of building underground caverns as a permanent storage site for Britain's nuclear waste.

Until a suitable site can be found, waste will continue to be stockpiled above ground at "interim" facilities at Sellafield, in Cumbria, it has said.

Mr Hutton rejected calls to find a permanent storage site before giving the green light to new nuclear plants.

'Tried and tested'

French energy giant EDF has already said it plans to build four nuclear plants in the UK by 2017, without subsidies, following the government's announcement.

Chief executive Vincent De Rivaz said: "We have made it clear that once the right frameworks are in place, we will be in a position to move fast, move first and move safe."

German power company E.On and British Gas parent Centrica also expressed interest in building nuclear plants in the UK, following the government's announcement.

Speaking earlier in the Commons, Mr Hutton said the government had concluded nuclear power was a "tried and tested", and safe, technology which had a role to play "in this country's future energy mix alongside other low-carbon sources".

Analysis of future gas and carbon prices showed nuclear was "affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions".

Waste storage

An independent body, the Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurances Board, will look at the potential clean-up costs - including any impact on electricity bills - and a review of potential sites for new reactors will report next year.

Mr Hutton assured MPs that private operators would be expected to meet the full cost of building nuclear plants, decommissioning and disposing of waste.

But he said no "artificial cap" would be put on the proportion of electricity to be generated from nuclear power or any other source of "low carbon energy". Existing nuclear power stations produce about 20% of the UK's electricity.

Conservative spokesman Alan Duncan welcomed the government's commitment to nuclear power.

But he warned: "On no account should there be any kind of subsidy for nuclear power."

Steve Webb, for the Liberal Democrats, attacked the decision, warning the country faced being locked into a technology "for the best part of a century, when other technologies like carbon capture and storage, like renewables, are evolving practically every day".

He added: "I can't decide whether new nuclear is a white elephant or a red herring. But very clearly what it isn't is the answer to the energy problems we face today."

Legal challenge

Ministers say a decision on nuclear power is necessary now, as many nuclear and coal-fired power stations are due to close within 20 years.

The nuclear industry believes it can get the first new plant on-stream by 2017.

The government is also publishing an Energy Bill designed to reduce carbon emissions and secure the UK's power supplies.

But its nuclear plans could be still be subject to a legal challenge from Greenpeace, which successfully challenged an earlier government review backing nuclear power in the High Court.

It claims research shows that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% some time after 2025.

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: "This is bad news for Britain's energy security and bad news for our efforts to beat climate change."

Although energy policy is not devolved, Scottish ministers have control of the planning system and also have to give consent under the Electricity Act to the construction of new power stations above a certain size.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has said there is "no chance" of more nuclear power stations being built in Scotland.

But Mr Hutton he believed the Scottish government was making a "mistake" by ruling out nuclear and it was "entirely possible" that Scottish consumers would rely on electricity generated in England in the future.


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