Against rising headwinds, UK pushes ahead with nuclear projects

London (AFP)


Under pressure from Brexit and the declining costs of renewable energy, Britain's nuclear industry is increasingly relying on supportive government policy to plough on with high-profile -- and controversial -- projects.

With four big projects due for completion by 2025, the country is at the forefront of a global industry left shaken by the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear site in Japan.

"The UK is the best place in the world to build nuclear" as the sector does not face the political opposition found elsewhere, David Powell, Hitachi's Europe vice-president for nuclear power plant sales, told AFP on the sidelines of a conference in London this month.

Britain's Conservative government has made the decommissioning of the country's coal-fired power stations and ageing nuclear reactors -- many of which were built in the 1950s -- a pillar of its energy security policy and low-carbon commitments.

Only one of Britain's 15 existing reactors is expected to be in use by 2030.

But British anti-nuclear campaigners have denounced the government's steadfast commitment to nuclear power, urging it to focus instead on renewable sources like wind and solar.

"The contrast between the nuclear industry and the renewables industry could not be starker," said Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK.

"Offshore wind, in particular, is dramatically falling in cost and rapidly improving in technology," he said.

"It is clear that new nuclear will only be built with substantial government support not required by renewable energy technologies like wind and solar."

Two new windpower projects announced last week appeared to confirm that it has become cheaper to harness energy from wind than nuclear.

But Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, says he is not convinced, and that harnessing atomic energy still has its advantages.

"For nuclear energy, as with offshore wind, the more you build the more the price falls," he told AFP at the conference, which was also attended by senior delegates from the French giant Areva, China's CGN and the US group Westinghouse.

"Nuclear delivers what offshore wind can't deliver, which is constant, always available power. It does not matter what the weather is like," he said.

- Nuclear 'must have its place' -

But the industry also faces an entirely different obstacle in the form of Brexit, with Britain having to decide on whether to remain in Euratom, the European nuclear regulator.

In recent written evidence submitted to the UK parliament, French energy group EDF warned continued access to skilled labour from the EU, and the development of an alternative regulatory framework for Britain, would both be necessary for major projects like Hinkley Point to go ahead.

Last March, the first pouring of concrete at the Hinkley Point C power plant in western England brought the vision of a nuclear future for Britain one step closer to reality.

The site's two reactors, due to be built by 2025 in conjunction with EDF and China's CGN, will be Britain's first in more than two decades.

EDF is also considering building a reactor at Sizewell in eastern England as a counterpart to Hinkley, while CGN has its eyes on a similar project nearby.

Elsewhere, two reactors being built in Wales by the Japanese conglomerate Hitachi are expected to gain regulatory approval before the end of the year.

Increased demand for electric cars, trains and heating are contributing to the growing electricity demand, meaning a surge in new capacity is required, according to industry experts.

"No one says it should all be nuclear, but it must have its place," Greatrex said.

But the competition from wind and solar power threatens to severely test the viability of British nuclear projects across the board in the coming years.

Official figures show nuclear energy represented 21.2 percent of Britain's energy production last year, compared with 24.4 percent from renewable energy sources.