comment for The Guardian, 30 March 2012
The German energy companies, RWE and E.ON, have abandoned plans to build two new nuclear power stations at Wylfa on the island of Anglesey in north Wales and at Oldbury on the Severn estuary. Depending on the interpretation, this is either a “total train wreck” or just a “disappointing” setback for the government’s nuclear ambitions. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between.
A combination of last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the German government’s subsequent decision to phase out nuclear power and the general economic downturn has long made investments in new reactors look shaky. The sums of money are so large, the potential liabilities so daunting and the financial paybacks so uncertain, that investors have always been wary about nuclear power. Expect more setbacks.
So is nuclear power doomed?
Unlikely. The industry is politically very powerful, and has successfully raised itself from the dead several times in the past. It has prevailed upon successive UK governments to take a series of “facilitative actions” to remove barriers to nuclear development.
Last November, the pro-nuclear Department of Energy and Climate Change helped set up a high-powered “Programme Management Board” with nuclear companies to try and prevent the nuclear project from going off the rails. Britain’s nuclear industry had “lost its international edge”, the board said, yet it was now embarked on the UK’s “the most challenging infrastructure programme”.
Why doesn't Britain have its own nuclear energy supplier?
It did, before it was denationalised by the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the 198Os. That ultimately led to the creation of British Energy to run nuclear stations, which then had to be bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of over £3 billion.
In 2008 British Energy was sold lock, stock and barrel to the French government’s nuclear company, EDF, which now runs Britain’s nuclear generating stations. It is also leading the efforts to build new nuclear plants, starting at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
But isn’t France losing faith in nuclear power?
There are certainly problems. Two reactors like the ones that EDF wants for England are under construction in France and Finland and they are four years late and costing nearly twice as much as predicted.
The former head of EDF, François Rousseley, has recently suggested that the reactor design should be dropped, and the French National Audit Office has agreed, saying it is complex and expensive. The replacement of President Nicolas Sarkozy at the elections later this month could also see a shake-up on nuclear policy.
Could there be power cuts without nuclear?
That is a threat that the nuclear industry has made in the past, but it has never materialised. There are issues with future energy supplies that need to be resolved as power stations approach the ends of their lives, but there are several sources other than nuclear, including gas and renewables like wind, though each has their drawbacks.
The problem with nuclear is that it is cumbersome, capital-intensive and relatively inflexible. Not everyone agrees with the British government’s insistence that nuclear has to be the way forward. The Scottish government, for example, believes it can avoid replacing its two nuclear stations by rapid developing renewable energy instead. This week, Scottish ministers said that they had already beaten their target to provide more than 30 per cent of Scotland’s electricity from renewable sources.