British parliament now the single unlikely curb to a UK and EU nuclear renaissance

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Publish date: January 8, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – The cabinet of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given the green light to a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom, setting the stage for a Europe wide clash with environmentalists and other scientists who say going nuclear is an unsafe option to deal with the pressures of already-encroaching climate change.

“There was a very good discussion with many interventions,” Emily Hands, a spokeswoman for Brown told reporters in London. Asked if any ministers had opposed the decision to back the construction of new nuclear plants in England – the first in more than a decade – Hands replied: “not that I am aware of.”

Other reports from England, however, indicated that yesterday’s cabinet meeting on whether to back new nuclear construction in the UK was far more heated than Hands indicated. Late last year, for instance, Scotland announced outright it would accept no nuclear construction there, regardless of what the Brown cabinet decided.

The basis of Brown’s decision to move ahead with new nuclear, which will formally be announced to Parliament tomorrow by British Secretary of Business John Hutton, is the fact that a quarter of Britain’s nuclear generating capacity is slated to go offline by 2010, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry body.

Brown further argued that new nuclear plants would help fill the energy shortfall gaps while industry works to carbon emissions cut targets and to secure energy supplies for the country.

The decision comes at a time of increased uncertainty over future energy supplies, with renewables only providing a tiny fraction of the UK’s power.

Parliament and business expected to give the go-ahead
Brown’s plan to go forward down the nuclear road now lays with British parliament.

With the opposition Conservative party expected to lend its support to the proposals, Brown and his ministers appear to have a clear run on the new nuclear policy, at least within parliament.

The move also has the backing of big business analysis groups like PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Nuclear deals both with the climate change question and the issue of security of supply," says Mark Hughes, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ European utilities leader

"On the global stage, nuclear is really finding its feet."

Environmental groups primed to appeal
But any go-ahead for more nuclear reactors, to be published in the imminent energy bill, could still face a legal appeal from Greenpeace, the environmental pressure group that forced a delay to the government’s plans last year.

Greenpeace won a second period of public consultation on the issue, the results of which form part of Hutton’s announcement to Parliament on Thursday.

A group of 13 influential scientific and industrial associations will today urge the government to press ahead with new nuclear power stations, saying they are necessary "as part of the balanced energy mix needed to tackle climate change and provide secure long-term energy supplies".

The Royal Society of Chemistry warned, however, that the government must fill the energy skills gap if new nuclear power stations were to be feasible, and would have to ensure there were enough qualified engineers to decommission old plants and deal with nuclear waste.

Richard Pike, chief executive, said: "Future nuclear power or not, if we fail to provide sufficient numbers of qualified scientists the country will risk losing its way in providing energy for the future [and] fail to handle properly the nuclear materials left from our past and present nuclear industries."

Bellona’s position

Bellona has stated on its web page that it was against any development of nuclear power in England until England is able to make good on promises to build geologic repositories for nuclear waste, old and new.

The British government’s plan envisions starting the construction of two new nuclear power plants at an estimated cost of £2.5 billion ($4.9 billion) a piece within the next five years.

This money could be used to pump up what was already a viable renewable energy research sector in Britain, as well as help finance Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies to arrest CO2 at coal fired plants, from whence it could be sequestered in underground formations, says Bellona.

That aside, noted Bellona nuclear industry expert Igor Kudrik, the British plan to fly a green flag to build new nuclear plants in the interest of cutting carbon emissions misses the point of cutting those same emissions entirely.

Given that it takes some 10 years to build a nuclear power plant, the time it would take to construct enough of them to have any appreciable impact on global climate change would far exceed the period in which global climate change is expected to gain an irreversible foothold, says Kudrik.

“They will be spending resources on nuclear instead for investing them into some more sensible sources of energy,” he said.

Britain’s Greenpeace decried Brown’s decision as largely political.

“Going for nuclear allows politicians like Gordon Brown to project the impression that they are taking difficult decisions,” said Britain’s Greenpeace director, John Sauven, in a statement yesterday. “In reality, new nuclear power stations simply will not solve our energy problems.”

Business interests seem to prevail
The rest of Europe, which has been sitting on the fence to pursue nuclear or ultimately cheaper and cleaner renewable sources of energy, is expected to be heavily influenced by the British decision as they draw up their own carbon cutting energy plans and vie for native energy security, diplomats said Wednesday.

And much of Europe stands to gain from the go ahead to build new nuclear plants as nuclear contractors from France, Germany and Spain line up to break ground on new plants in the UK. Japan’s Toshiba and Canada are also poised to make offers.

“This is precisely the kind of support for going nuclear that many who are wavering in the European Union have wanted to hear,” said an EU representative who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorised to speak with the media on nuclear issues.

“This could push many countries that were considering nuclear phases outs further in the direction of utilising nuclear both domestically and selling it abroad,” said the diplomat in an telephone interview from Brussels.

European arguments for nuclear power

With its low carbon dioxide output and resistance to rising oil and gas prices, nuclear power generation meets many requirements of European countries looking to meet stringent EU targets for greenhouse gas reductions and to reduce energy dependence on oil and gas imports from Russia and the Middle East, said another EU diplomat who similarly requested anonymity.

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, European utilities, including France’s EDF and Germany’s E.ON, rank nuclear as the most likely technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the energy sector by 2017.

At present, says the report, more than 30 percent of power generation companies are actively considering investment in nuclear power to meet their commitments under the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme, which charges companies for emitting carbon dioxide. Across Europe, nuclear power constitutes 30 percent of total energy generation.

With two nuclear plants slated to break ground in the UK under the Brown plan, a further three to five plants could get the go-ahead by 2015.

"For energy companies, nuclear generation is certainly an attractive prospect if they have government backing," says Michael Tamvakis, professor of commodities, economics, and finance at City University’s Cass Business School in London.

Nuclear ‘explosion’ already underway?

Indeed, it could be that the nuclear trend has already gained critical momentum in previously renewables-hungry Europe.

In Central Europe and Finaland, 13 plants are under construction, according to the Brussels-based European Nuclear Society. Finland started the trend in 2005 when construction on a 1600-megawatt plant—the first new facility in Western Europe for 15 years—began.

But what is especially significant in the case of Finland is that, prior to 2000, its government had committed itself to phasing out nuclear power altogether, and sought to make up the deficit by buying electricity produced by Russia’s dangerously aged, Chernobyl-style Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant.

France broke ground on a new 1650-megawatt plant in September, 2007, while Bulgaria and the Ukraine are each working on two new plants.

Such demand has put a strain on the nuclear industry, which had spent several decades in slow decline as governments, utilities, and the public turned to other sources of energy.

New nuclear engineers in demand
With nuclear power now back in vogue around the world – 20 years having faded the collective memory of Chernobyl – the price of uranium has risen four-fold since 2004. Similarly, the need for nuclear engineers throughout Europe has never been higher, with many analysts predicting a shortage of highly trained staff if new employees aren’t recruited into the industry.

Despite these problems, Luís Echávarri, director of the Organisation of Energy Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, is unconcerned.

"In spite of the rise in uranium costs, it still remains small, representing only 5 percent of the total cost of energy production," he said.

How will the world handle more radwaste?
Despite the fact that no government on the planet has yet come close to finding a safe and permanent solution for its nuclear waste problems – and most are forthright about saying the safest methods like geologic repositories are decades away from being realised, Echávarri says the waste problem is also decades.

"Any new plant will take up to 10 years to complete, so governments and companies have sufficient time [to recruit staff], but they must start to act now," he said.

Yet this point of view fails to take into account that nations like Britain and Russia, which are poised for nuclear expansion, have yet to begin dealing with their own nuclear waste problems.

Britain, as revealed over the weekend, is buying up property in Cumbria and other locales north of Manchester in a desperate effort to find more space for more nuclear waste in anticipation of the new reactor development programme.

Russia, which has since 2001, been accepting spent nuclear fuel from abroad, has amassed more than 15,000 of native nuclear waste that it cannot begin to reprocess at its outmoded Mayak reprocessing facility.

And Britain’s own reprocessing efforts were thrown far off track by a 2005 by a leak of plutonium and uranium liquor in the Thorp plant’s clarification cell that went undetected for nine months. Resuming reprocessing at the facility – which is opposed by Bellona – is set to begin full scale this year. The leak was scored just one point short of a full scale accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Another concern for the nuclear industry is the decommissioning of plants and disposal of hazardous waste. Critics say these costs likely will be born by national governments because nuclear waste, which is typically buried deep underground, remains a radioactive for dozens to hundreds of thousands of years, poisoning underground water tables and causing huge released of radiation.

To combat the environmental issues, the British government says it will require firms to pay the full cost of decommissioning and waste storage. Most European energy companies already pay for disposal of the toxic nuclear substances.

Again, this rosy excuse sidesteps what actually happens to the waste – which is that it continues to build up in only temporarily secure sites awaiting final safe disposal that does not exist.

The only thing that can stand between a nuclear renaissance in Europe at this moment now seems to be the British Parliament, who will be hearing Business Secretary Hutton’s case for expansion Thursday.

Bellona urges British Parliament to turn down nuclear development, which, while attractive as a non-carbon producing energy source, will ultimately create nuclear waste, siphon funding away from cheaper renewable energy sources, and leave the world in the double bind of dealing with a climate crisis and a nuclear waste crisis at the same time.