A boost for renewables, but nuclear power takes centre stage
“I THINK there’d be plenty of support round here for a new nuclear plant,” says Colonel George Smythe, chairman of a nuclear-power discussion group at Dungeness in Kent. Two giant atomic power plants dominate the flat shingle shoreline of this blustery bit of the Channel coast. Although the older Dungeness A was shut down for decommissioning in 2006, the plants provide hundreds of jobs in an area without many other big employers. When Mr Smythe asked residents what should replace the closed power station, the most popular answer was a new one (although a nature reserve came a close second).
Such enthusiasm will be welcomed by Gordon Brown. On January 10th his government unveiled its much-delayed new energy policy, the centrepiece of which was a decision to support the building of new nuclear-power stations.
Energy policy in Britain is under pressure from the imminent closure of many coal- and nuclear-fired power stations, increasing dependence on foreign suppliers (as North Sea oil and gas reserves dwindle) and worries about climate change. For Mr Brown, nuclear power ticks all the right boxes. It produces little carbon dioxide, the technology is well-developed and the uranium fuel can be obtained from stable, friendly countries such as Canada or Australia. Although ministers refuse to say how many new plants they want, most observers reckon that they hope existing stations will at least be replaced. Nuclear power now provides about 20% of Britain’s electricity, and all but one of the ten remaining stations will be shut by 2023.
The pro-nuclear decision was both widely trailed and controversial. Ministers planned to publish the bill last year, but when an environmental pressure group won a court case arguing that the government’s consultation on nuclear power had been misleading, the bill was shelved and the consultation re-run. Polls show a modest rise in public support for nuclear power in recent years, but there is still anxious uncertainty over where to bury the waste.
Economics may prove even trickier than politics. Formally, there is no need for the government to give its blessing to new nuclear stations: there is no law banning companies from building them now. But nuclear power has a troubled history in Britain. Thanks to planning delays, Sizewell B, Britain’s newest nuclear plant, took 12 years to build. The finances of nuclear stations—with their huge upfront capital costs—make such delays very costly, and leave plants vulnerable to fluctuations in power prices. In 2003 low prices meant that British Energy, which operates Britain’s more modern reactors, had to be rescued with £3 billion of public money.
Ministers are keen to avoid further bailouts, and want new nuclear plants to be privately financed. State help will be limited to reforming the lengthy licensing process, streamlining the planning system and levying a charge on nuclear operators to pay for decommissioning and waste storage. But despite encouraging noises from power firms such as EDF, a French company, and E.ON, a German one, not everyone is convinced the sums add up. Some note that assurances about fully private funding have been replaced by statements that nuclear operators will pay their “full share” of costs—hardly the same.
Not all the news was nuclear. The bill also sets rules for building more natural-gas storage (as imports replace dwindling domestic supplies) and for developing technology to capture and sequester carbon emissions from fossil-fuel plants. Britain has much potential: natural salt caverns and depleted gas fields could store decades of emissions from Europe.
There was some good news for renewable fans, too, with the reform of the government’s main subsidy for electricity from renewable sources. The existing scheme awards the same payments to all technologies. As a result, virtually all the money has flowed into onshore wind power, which, as the cheapest renewable technology, offers the biggest profits. But onshore wind has run into political difficulties of its own. Windy spots tend to be beauty spots, and complaints from residents have made it difficult to build turbines. That is one reason why renewables account for just 3% of British electricity-generating capacity, compared with 28% in Germany and 16% in Spain. Under the new plan, developing more expensive technologies (such as offshore wind or tidal power) will attract more money.
Some greens argue that building new nuclear stations means scaling back the government’s renewable-energy goals. Documents leaked last year suggested that Mr Brown wanted to water down Britain’s commitment to a European target that 20% of all energy used must come from renewables by 2020. But others are keen to extend an olive branch to the nuclear industry. Gordon Edge, an economist at the British Wind Energy Association, dismisses talk of crowding out. “Building nuclear power plants doesn’t have to mean less money for renewables,” he says. “After all, we have a common enemy.”
10 January 2008
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