Britain goes nuclear to beat energy crisis

May 20, 2006 02:00 AM

by Philip Webster

Britain is to build the first new generation of nuclear power stations for 20 years to avoid becoming dependent on foreign gas imports.
Tony Blair pre-empted his Government’s energy review to say that the replacement of existing nuclear stations was back on the agenda “with a vengeance”, provoking a row with environmentalists.

Construction of the first new atomic plants could start within ten years under fast-track planning permission. Britain’s twelve nuclear power stations currently provide 22 % of the country’s electricity, but all but three will close by 2020.
Objections to the cost and environmental record of nuclear power have ensured that no new plants have been ordered since work started on Sizewell B in 1988. However, early findings from the Government’s review of the country’s future energy needs show the importance of the nuclear option, the Prime Minister said.

Britain will be importing 90 % of its natural gas by 2025, leaving electricity generation reliant on potentially unstable countries in the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union, he said.
Mr Blair told the Confederation of British Industry: “These facts put the replacement of nuclear power stations, a big push on renewables and a step change on energy efficiency, engaging both business and consumers, back on the agenda with a vengeance.”

Ofgem, the energy regulator, added to the sense of urgency surrounding Britain’s power future by saying that the country faced shortages in gas supplies next winter if there are delays in key projects to import more gas. Nuclear energy can help to reduce the reliance on energy imports and reduce carbon emissions that cause global warming.
“If we do not take these long-term decisions now we will be committing a serious dereliction of our duty to the future of this country,” Mr Blair said.

It is the clearest public signal that he has made up his mind to commission new nuclear stations since The Times reported last November that Mr Blair had become convinced that new plants would be needed.
The new plants will almost certainly be built on existing sites to lessen planning objections and public opposition. The Prime Minister is unlikely to encounter much Cabinet opposition, although some Labour MPs remain strongly opposed to nuclear power. Gordon Brown is believed to be in favour of the principle of building more stations, although he has insisted that the decision should be supported by a cost-benefits analysis.

Stephen Tindale, the director of Greenpeace, said: “The Prime Minister obviously made up his mind about nuclear power some time ago, and certainly well before the Government launched its energy review. This is the latest act in a long-running farce that is the energy review. The review is a smokescreen for a decision that has already been taken.”
Kate Hudson, the chair-woman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said that pressing ahead with building new nuclear power stations would be “incomprehensible”. Given the 15 years it would take a nuclear power station to come on stream, the cost of dealing with radioactive waste and the threat of terrorist attacks, it would be “irresponsible” to replace existing stations, she said.

Tony Juniper, the director of Friends of the Earth, said: “The UK could be leading the world in the development of a low- carbon, nuclear-free economy. He seems intent on trying to waste yet more taxpayers’ money on a discredited and dangerous nuclear dinosaur.”
Alan Duncan, the Shadow Trade Secretary, said: “What on earth is the point of an energy review, when all he ever wanted to do was to say that you will be having nuclear power whether you like it or not?”

Sir Digby Jones, the CBI Director-General, said that Mr Blair was right to put nuclear power firmly on the agenda for the future.
“With an ever-increasing reliance on imported gas, and the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear power may well form part of the solution.”

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