Europe thinks again on scrapping nuclear power
Author: Stuart Penson
Nuclear's ability to generate power round the clock without sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is testing the resolve to abandon a hugely expensive industry still tainted by the legacy of past disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Helping the industry's case are doubts that the current attempt by governments to spark a green power revolution by building hundreds of windfarms can deliver big enough cuts in CO2 or ensure that the lights stay on after existing reactors have shut down.
"Nuclear power has gone from being very peripheral to being taken seriously again," said Dieter Helm, a fellow in economics at Oxford University.
"The exclusive focus on renewables and energy efficiency in several social democratic governments in Europe is not delivering enough carbon savings to keep on track with the ambitious climate change targets."
Rising prices for fossil fuels and Europe's growing reliance on gas imported from outside the region have also encouraged policymakers to think again about phasing out nuclear, which has high initial capital costs but low production costs thereafter.
Industry sources say Britain is likely to conduct a serious reappraisal of nuclear power but because of the issue's sensitivity the question will not get a public airing until after a general election expected next year.
Britain put on hold its nuclear building programme with the completion in 1995 of the Sizewell B station in eastern England and is scheduled to close its last reactor in 2035.
A sharp drop in power prices recently forced the government to rescue privatised nuclear giant British Energy from bankruptcy, although prices have since recovered.
Despite the BE debacle ministers were careful to leave the door ajar to a new generation of reactors when they updated their thinking on energy policy earlier this year.
REACTORS GET CHEAPER
Analysts say the up-front costs of new reactors are dropping because they are smaller than earlier models.
"I think there is evidence beginning to build that the capital costs of nuclear plants will be substantially lower than in the past," said Philip Ruffles, vice president of The Royal Academy of Engineers in London. "Plants would be smaller, roughly half the physical size of current plants."
Crucial to the viability of new reactors would be the cost of capital and the length of time taken to build the plants, other analysts said.
Nuclear costs must include the management of waste, problems with which remains central to the argument of the industry's widespread opponents.
"The biggest problem for nuclear is the disposal of radioactive waste in a politically and publicly acceptable way," said Frank Barnaby, a nuclear security specialist at the independent Oxford Research Group.
Nuclear power is making headway in some countries. Finland is building a three-billion-euro reactor, its fifth. France, which already relies heavily on nuclear power, is pressing ahead with plans to build a prototype pressurised water reactor as it looks beyond the retirement of its existing plants.
Shifts in opinion are also evident in Sweden. A majority voted in 1980 to phase out atomic plants by 2010 but a recent Gallup poll showed more than 55 percent in favour of keeping existing plants.
The Swiss last year voted not to scrap nuclear power after the government argued it would be premature to shut down a cheap energy source that meets 40 percent of its power needs.