UK sets its sights on new generation of power plant

Aug 06, 2006 02:00 AM

After all the hype and furore, there now seems little doubt that a new batch of nuclear power stations will be built on UK soil -- unless campaigners get their way.
Though officials might still be treading cautiously, given the sensitivity of the issue, it seems pretty clear that nuclear energy is coming back into focus in the UK. Faced with the dual challenge of fighting pollution and securing reliable energy at affordable prices, the nuclear option has struck a chord with the powers that be in Whitehall, though the British public might still need some persuading.

The latest government Energy Review, though not quite spelling out how much and when, makes the case for nuclear plain enough.
As industry minister Alistair Darling notes: “Our analysis suggests that, alongside other low carbon generating options, a new generation of nuclear power stations could make a contribution to reducing carbon emissions and reducing our reliance on imported energy.”
It mirrors a trend witnessed in other industrialised countries, including the US, where -- after years in the wilderness -- nuclear power is back in the limelight.

It marks something of a reversal in UK strategy. When the government published its last energy White Paper in 2003, it called for massive reductions in CO2 emissions, a huge boost to renewables like solar, wind and tidal power, and energy efficiency programmes.
Though it still left the door ajar, it largely ruled out building new atomic plants to replace existing ones coming to the end of their lives stating nuclear was an “unattractive option”. At the time, Friends of the Earth welcomed the policy as the “death knell” for nuclear power in Britain.

But a number of factors have come into play to bring about the turnaround. For starters, the spiralling price of natural gas, at a time when the UK is seeing more imports to offset production declines from the North Sea, has made a notable difference to the economics of nuclear energy.
Though nuclear power stations remainprohibitively expensive to build, this cost has been greatly offset by the rising cost of conventional fuels.

And while the higher cost of oil and gas has helped resolve some of the financial questions overhanging the nuclear industry, it also solves the energy security issue. Installing more nuclear energy provides an opportunity to lessen exposure to potentially volatile suppliers from Africa, the Middle East and Russia. Indeed, the gas crisis that hit Ukraine when Russia turned off the taps in the freezing winter may have focused a few minds, reflected in domestic energy bills.
The central message is that nuclear generation is likely to be justified in a world where there is continued commitment to carbon emissions reduction and where gas prices are at or above 37 pence/therm. A programme to add 6 GW of new nuclear capacity by 2025 would reduce total forecast gas consumption in 2025 by around 7 %.

Most of all, the contribution of nuclear energy in cutting down on carbon emissions is not to be sniffed at. With industrial countries falling over themselves to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, nuclear power provides a relatively neutral form of electricity generation, though again environmentalists might strongly disagree.
Ironically, the return to favour of nuclear power comes at a time when interest in renewable energy is reaching new heights. According to the Energy Review, the UK plans to step up its focus on green power to take a 20 % share of the UK’s energy portfolio within the next two decades, roughly five times more than its present contribution. Strange bedfellows perhaps, but the two complement each other in their ability to make a dent in damaging carbon emissions, a major focus of current energy policy worldwide.

In an ideal world, renewable energy would probably take an even greater slice of the UK’s energy mix, slashing oil and gas import bills and minimising any possible negative environmental impact. But for now, nuclear energy -- already an important source of low carbonelectricity in the UK -- offers a strong cost benefit advantage for large-scale base-load generation, as well as enhancing diversity of supply.
Going forward, higher projected fossil fuel prices plus the introduction of a carbon price to place a value on carbon dioxide have further improved the economic profile of nuclear as a source of low carbon electric power generation. For illustrative purposes, if existing atomic capacity were replaced, then by 2030 the UK’s carbon emissions would be around 8 MtC lower -- equivalent to the total emissions from 22 gas-fired power stations of 500 MW each -- than otherwise, with gas consumption some 13 % lower.

In a sense, it will simply be more of the same -- nuclear power already accounts for almost a fifth of the UK’s electricity provision. But this is likely to drop to just 6 % by 2020 as ageing plants come offline. In fact, more than 10 GW of the UK’s nuclear generating capability will close by 2023, leaving a huge void in the system unless new capacity is added somewhere.
But is it safe? This age-old question will continue to dog political leaders as environmentalists question the wisdom of building more nuclear plant, citing Chernobyl and other incidents. Critics have already compared the recent Energy Review to something akin to opening the gates of hell, with the UK taking a dirty and dangerous path into the future, with its backing for nuclear.

Though no-one can take these arguments lightly, it is also true that nuclear technology has grown up massively since the last batch of generating stations were put up. Building these facilities takes time and gulps huge amounts of money, but they are likely to be more efficient, more reliable, and safer than ever before.
What’s more, several major industrialised states, such as France and Japan, have relied on nuclear power even when others grew fearful. Though a series of safety incidents have slowed new project development in Japan, it remains a committed follower of nuclear energy.

The return of nuclear power is certainly positive news for industry players such as Westinghouse and BNFL, already enjoying something of a revival in fortunes. The government has declared that the private sector will be responsible for funding and building the next generation of plants, as well as covering the full cost of decommissioning.
More details on the UK’s nuclear programme are expected to emerge during the coming months. The next step in London is to introduce measures to facilitate the creation of this new breed of nuclear power plant. This includes streamlining the licensing process and providing further clarification on the strategy for decommissioning and waste.

Guidelines for potential promoters of new nuclear power plants are expected to be in place early next year.
Work to identify potential sites will also commence in 2007, though these are likely to be close to existing nuclear facilities.

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