Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How a pledge on greenhouse gases made Blair go nuclear

Britain, UK news from The Times and The Sunday Times - Times Online

By Nigel Hawkes
Promise to beat Kyoto emission target puts power row centre stage

A RASH promise made 11 years ago has forced the Government to embrace nuclear power.
By undertaking to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent before 2010, the Labour Party, which was then in opposition, won plaudits from environmentalists. The pledge went far beyond the Kyoto commitment.

Now it is plain that the target will be missed: Britain?s carbon emissions have risen two years running. Meeting future obligations will also be impossible unless the Government changes its course.

Age is catching up with Britain?s nuclear plants and replacements ? unless they are also nuclear ? would emit much more carbon dioxide. Britain risks slipping even further behind its targets, as the Government has belatedly realised.

While the ?dash for gas? in the 1990s reduced carbon emissions, this situation could now be sustained only by a massive increase in gas imports from Russia and the Middle East, sources of dubious reliability.

So global warming and energy security have conspired to revive a technology that Labour instinctively rejects. If there are to be new nuclear plants, as the Prime Minister wants, it will involve trampling over the principles of many of his MPs.

Britain has 14 nuclear power stations on 11 sites, which generate a fifth of our electricity. The oldest date from the mid-1960s, the most recent ? Sizewell B ? from the mid-1990s. ?Half the existing nuclear plants will have closed by 2015,? Keith Parker, of the Nuclear Industry Association, said. ?By 2023 there will be only one left ? Sizewell B.?

Without new plants the share of nuclear electricity will inevitably decline as the plants shut down.

On its own, analysts say, this would not lead to an ?energy gap?. There is plenty of gas in the world and no immediate supply problems. If global warming were disregarded, energy supplies would be sufficient, although subject to the whim of suppliers aboard.

?But if Britain is to continue the path of reducing emissions, it will need to maintain some nuclear capacity,? said John Loughead, of the UK Energy Research Institute, summarising a two-day discussion by 150 specialists held in London recently.

?Renewable energy and conservation are also vital,? he said, ?but the market alone won?t deliver these aspirations. If it is left to the market, it will be an extremely bumpy ride. It needs guidance from the Government.?

Tony Blair?s recognition that ?business as usual? would not deliver both secure energy and low carbon emissions lay behind his announcement of a new energy review in his party conference speech this year.

But why should he want a review only two years after the publication of the Energy White Paper, which laid out energy strategy? The inevitable conclusion is that the Prime Minister wants a different answer ? one that incorporates nuclear power.

New nuclear plants cannot help Labour to meet its promise of a 20 per cent cut in carbon by 2010. ?Achieving that is now a forlorn hope,? Mr Parker said.

A new nuclear programme would take at least ten years to generate its first watt ? five years? planning and getting clearance, five years? building. Critics say that the timescale would be longer.

Any new plant would be built on one of the existing nuclear sites, which have the necessary infrastructure and enjoy local support. The old arguments about British versus overseas designs are dead, partly because indigenous innovation has withered in the long hiatus between orders and partly because the industry is now an international one.

Whatever design were to be chosen, the technology would be proven rather than new, costs lower and designs simpler and safer. No subsidies would be needed, insisted Vincent de Rivas, the chief executive of EDF Energy, which owns British power stations and distribution networks including London Electricity and Seeboard.

?That?s an old-fashioned view,? he told MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons this month. ?What [the] nuclear [industry] requires from Government is a clear policy in terms of licensing, in terms of planning, in terms of putting in place a safety authority, a clear vision and a Government which delivers.

?For the rest, building and operating nuclear [facilities] with the technologies that are available at the moment is competitive and does not require special subsidies. It will deliver. There will be investors to invest, there will be customers to buy the energy produced.?

The 2003 White Paper laid a lot of emphasis on renewable sources and energy efficiency. Renewables are expected to generate a fifth of electricity by 2020, with most of it coming from the wind.


1896: radioactivity was discovered by Henri Becquerel

1947: the first UK research reactor started at Harwell

1949: start of civil nuclear energy in Britain with decision that the next plutonium-producing reactors should generate electricity

1956: first of four reactors, built at Calder Hall near Windscale in Cumbria, opened by the Queen

1959: four more at Chapelcross opened.

1979: Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suffers a partial core meltdown. Minimal radioactive material is released

1986: reactor exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The effects of the fallout are still affecting 16 million people

2003: Calder Hall closed

2005: Chapelcross closed

2010: Britain aims to cut greenhouse emissions by 20 per cent ? above Kyoto agreement figure ? by this date

2023: final deadline for plants in Heysham 2, Lancashire, and Torness, Scotland to close

2035: final deadline for Sizewell B to shut down


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