Britain prepares to trumpet new era for nuclear power

The government was expected Tuesday to herald a new era for nuclear power in Britain alongside a greater reliance on renewable sources when it releases a review of the country’s energy needs.

But the long-awaited report will likely trigger an angry response from environmentalists because any support for cleaner power, such as solar or tidal energy, will be overshadowed by the nuclear references.

The review, ordered by Prime Minister Tony Blair late last year, is expected to propose the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants to help offset shrinking North Sea oil and gas reserves.

It will also reportedly call for a five-fold increase in electricity production from renewable wind, solar, tidal and agricultural sources.

Blair wants Britain to rely more on nuclear power rather than expensive and dirty carbon fuels in a bid to combat climate change and reduce Britain’s dependence on foreign energy imports.

But environmental groups argue that there are better ways to do this, such as greater investment in renewable energy and a reduction in consumption.

The Observer newspaper on Sunday said the government’s review would conclude that nuclear power was economically viable and should play a role in the country’s future energy requirements.

Without nuclear power, Britain’s dependence on gas would rise from 38% to 55% by 2020, with up to 90% of this imported—largely from unstable regions such as the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and Russia—the weekly reported, citing a final draft of the review.

In addition, the closure of nuclear and coal plants over the next decade would mean 25 gigawatts of carbon-free, secure capacity must be built by 2020—about 30% of current capacity—according to the document.

The Observer quoted the review as saying: “Based on a range of possible scenarios, the economics of nuclear now look more positive than at the time of the 2003 energy white paper.”

It continued: “Government considers that nuclear should have a role to play in the future of the UK generating mix, alongside other low carbon-generating options.”

The Department of Trade and Industry is considering building six new nuclear power stations, each capable of generating 1,6 gigawatts of power, The Observer said, citing unnamed sources.

These investments will be financed by the private sector rather than government subsidies, under the review’s proposals.

Turning to renewable energy, the report will suggest raising the level of electricity produced by wind, solar, tidal and agricultural sources from 4% to 20% of Britain’s needs, the newspaper said.

The government also wants to focus more on potentially beneficial technologies that are currently uneconomic, such as off-shore wind farms.

Such overtures towards renewable energy failed to appease the critics.

Stephen Hale, a former adviser to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said it would be a mistake to rely too heavily on atomic energy.

The government’s review would be remembered “for a costly and misguided commitment to a new wave of nuclear power stations,” Hale, who is currently director of the pressure group Green Alliance, wrote in the paper.

Upping the pressure, a committee of MPs warned on Monday that the government was in danger of rushing the construction of such plants without conducting a “full and proper” assessment of Britain’s energy needs.

The trade and industry committee also urged Blair to secure “broad political and public support” before implementing potentially far-reaching decisions.

Britain currently has about a dozen nuclear power stations, most of them built in the 1960s and 1970s. They provide around 25% of the country’s electricity.

Proponents of new reactors, which emit virtually no carbon dioxide, say they would help Britain meet a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2010. - AFP

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