There were two big pieces of nuclear news coming out of the UK this week.
First, the government published plans to reform the electricity market, promising to hand over billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry to encourage them to build new nuclear reactors. Secondly, the government is working with French-owned energy giant EDF to extend the life of ageing UK nuclear reactors.
Taken together, it shows that the government is quite prepared to put the interests of the nuclear industry above the safety and wellbeing of the public.
The government says it remains optimistic that a fleet of new nuclear reactors will be built in the UK by 2025 without subsidy. They’re the only ones who still pretend to believe this will happen. With one nuclear reactor costing a mind-blowing £7 billion, most energy companies and private investors want nothing to do with new nuclear.
The original plan was for the UK to build “at least eight new reactors”. Then the companies who were meant to build the reactors started dropping out. Scottish and Southern was the first to break ranks. Then plans for a new reactor at the Heysham plant were cancelled after EdF decided not to build there.
Earlier this year the German utilities RWE and E.ON abandoned a plan to build two reactors at Wylfa and Oldbury. The reason? “Significant ongoing costs.” Centrica is also rumoured to be reconsidering its plans to partner with EDF.
In short, the UK’s nuclear “renaissance” is in a terrible mess.
The government sees only one solution: bribe the nuclear industry by throwing yet more billions down the nuclear drain through “a complex subsidy mechanism designed to artificially raise the price of electricity and make it more attractive for big companies to build new nuclear plants”.
Its claims that this isn’t a subsidy look increasingly ridiculous, as Ed Davey, the Minister in charge of UK energy policy, found out when he tried in vain to defend them on the leading radio current affairs programme.
The only serious player still in the game is EDF. Rumours are now swirling that, in the aftermath of Francois Hollande being elected French president, the state-owned company may pull out of the UK market altogether to concentrate on its operations at home.
This would explain why the UK government, which knows that nuclear can’t deliver on its promises, has offered to let EDF run its ageing reactors for a few more years, despite the increased risk to the public.
Extensions to the operating life of existing nuclear plants are much cheaper than building new reactors, so the government is effectively offering a massive windfall to EDF in the hope of keeping the nuclear giant at the bargaining table while it prepares to sign multi-billion pound contracts that force billpayers to pick up the tab for the nuclear industry’s failings.
The nuclear industry has had 60 years to get its safety record and economic foundations right. It has consistently tried and failed, and continues to do so.
Nuclear power had its chance – a big chance – and it blew it. It’s time to give wind, solar, tidal, energy efficiency and all the other low carbon and affordable solutions the same opportunity.
(Photograph of the UK's Sellafield nuclear plant © Greenpeace / Nick Cobbing)