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Europe

'New generation': The UK bets on a nuclear future

It's been hailed as a 'big day' for Britain. The first new nuclear power station to be built in Europe since the Fukushima disaster, but as the UK embraces its nuclear future, is the rest of Europe happy to follow suit?

Calling it a "big day for Britain," Prime Minister David Cameron promised that the nuclear power station at Hinkley point in Somerset, in the southwest of the country, would "kickstart a new generation of nuclear power in the country. As we compete in the tough global race, this underlines the confidence there is in Britain and makes clear that we are very much open for business" added Cameron, referring to the Hinkley Point C agreement.

A government press release stated that the new nuclear power station would generate jobs and energy. At the moment, the nuclear industry accounts for nearly a fifth of the UK's energy needs and employs around 40,000 people in the UK alone. Hinkley Point promises to push its energy generation to 7% of the UK's electricity, or about 5 million homes worth of energy.

Number crunching

The government claims that when the construction is at its peak, they will be contributing 100 million pounds to the local economy, and a total of 2 billion during the project's lifetime.The completed power station is due to go into operation in 2023.

The power station is expected to be a 3.2 gigawatt power plant with two reactors and the government claims it will save around 9,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year, equivalent to "roughly two million cars."

Energy has been in the news for a couple of weeks now in Britain, as the government and opposition fight over how to stem rising fuel prices and after the big energy companies, like British Gas and SSE, announced they will be hiking its prices in November - in British Gas' case by 9 percent.

Freezing energy prices

The opposition Labour leader, Ed Milliband, had pledged to freeze energy prices and accused the government of being "too weak" to stand up to the big energy companies who wield powerful lobbies in Westminster. The Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, Edward Davey, called this "an excellent deal for Britain and British consumers" because, "for the first time, a nuclear power station in this country will be built without money from the British taxpayer" and will provide a "safe, reliable [and]home grown source of energy."

He termed the deal "competitive" but the fixed price the government has agreed to pay for energy generation from this and potentially other reactors is already set at roughly double the current price of power. That's led some commentators to argue that the government has paid too high a price to the eneryg companies behind the project - the French EDF and two Chinese investors.

An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its contaminated water storage tanks (bottom) in Fukushima, in this file photo taken by Kyodo August 20, 2013. (Photo:REUTERS/Kyodo/Files)

The reactor will be the first in Europe to be built after the Fukushima disaster

'New nuclear'

The cost of the new reactor is estimated at 16 billion pounds and is tied up in a 35 year deal with EDF. It shows, says Cameron, that "this ... marks the next generation of nuclear power in Britain, which has an important part to play in contributing to our future energy needs and our longer term security of supply."

Those needs are outlined in the UK government's energy statement from 2012. "Energy is fundamental to our way of life and it is fundamental to our economy." It is also fundamental in Europe, with the EU committed to an energy roadmap that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

A European perspective

Yet countries within the EU still have wildly varying energy policies, particularly when it comes to nuclear energy.

Germany is phasing out nuclear energy entirely. Thirteen other EU countries, however, continue to operate nuclear reactors. Following the Fukushima disaster, Spain and Switzerland banned the construction of any new reactors, while France not only runs a number of reactors in its own country, but operates eight out of nine reactors in the UK through Electricité de France (EDF).

The UK currently has 16 operational nuclear reactors at nine sites. Of the currently operating reactors, some have been around since the seventies, and are having their lives extended. Government plans indicate that it hopes to produce more nuclear energy on UK soil.

Workers watch the dome of the containment structure for the No.1 reactor being hoisted at the contruction site of the Changjiang Nuclear Power Plant in Tangxing village, Haiwei Township,

Chinese money and French expertise from EDF has made this project possible

"The government wants to see new nuclear [power stations] come forward in the UK and has designated eight sites as potentially suitable," said a spokesman for the British Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC).

Hidden costs

Pete Roche works at "Spinwatch", an organization that aims to highlight the true meaning behind government PR, or "spin." Roche's area of expertise is "Nuclear Spin."

The UK government, he believes, "thinks they need [nuclear power] because there are an awful lot of coal fired stations due to close over the next few years, and the gas from the North Sea is also reducing."

He also feels that consumers are not being told the true cost of nuclear energy. "At the beginning of all this we were told that nuclear is the cheapest for providing low-carbon electricity," something he says is not necessarily true.

Price comparisons

By comparison, offshore wind costs 130 British pounds per megawatt, a figure that might drop to 100 by 2030. Although on the government press release for Hinkley Point, they estimate that Hinkley Point on 430 acres will be able to generate 26 terrawatt hours of electricity, compared to 130,000 acres of solar farms needed and 250,000 acres of onshore wind farms.

Roche told DW that Germany is "showing us the way," clearly wishing that the UK had also decided after Fukushima to phase out its nuclear power, not increase them.

"The first difference that I like to highlight between Germany and the UK is that Germany expects to reduce energy consumption by about 20 percent, I think. And the UK is expecting our energy consumption to increase. If we went for the kinds of reduction in consumption that Germany is going for, it would be much easier to implement a renewable energy strategy."

RWE

Energy policy decisions made in Germany have, in fact, had an effect on energy decision-making in the UK, but mostly from the standpoint of private energy companies. The German publically-traded energy company, RWE, which operates in the UK as 'RWE npower', has had to adapt to changing economic and political circumstances.

"The effect of the accelerated nuclear phaseout in Germany has led to RWE adopting a number of measures, including divestments, a capital increase, efficiency enhancements and a leaner capital expenditure budget," read an RWE statement sent to DW.

As the owner of the UK's largest offshore wind farm, RWE told DW that it would be impossible to generate all energy needs through renewable energies alone. But in a statement made last March, former CEO Volker Beckers continued to view nuclear energy as an integral part of the "mix" of energy sources needed to meet the UK's needs.

"We continue to believe that nuclear power has an important role to play in the UK's future energy mix," the CEO said.

Despite that statement, RWE has pulled out of the new build nuclear sites in the UK. They remain committed to low-carbon energy technologies in the UK.

Over the last three years RWE has invested £1.6 billion (1.86 billion euros) into new, highly-efficient gas-fired power stations in Britain. Over that same period it has invested over £1.2 billion into renewable energies.

A handout photograph released by British Energy Group showing British Energy Group's Sizewell B Power station, located in Suffolk, east England, (Photo: EPA/BRITISH ENERGY GROUP HO IMAGE EDITORIAL USE ONLY)

The government hopes a second new nuclear power station will go ahead at Sizewell in Suffolk too

Powerful lobbies

But at the UK policy level, a "green future" based purely on renewable energy is not something being considered.

Roche says that nuclear energy still has cross-party support in the UK, citing only about "40 MPs who would oppose it."

Roche believes the government developed an energy policy that does not reflect today's realities - one developed in 2003, when nuclear energy appeared to be cheap and offshore wind was expensive and was quite scarce.

A fair price?

"As time has gone on it's become clearer and clearer that [nuclear] is not cheap at all. The reactors are overrunning and getting more and more expensive," he told DW. "But they somehow need to save face, and continue the policy that they have started."

A photo showing a wind turbine at the Horns Reef wind farm in Denmark, some 20 kms (12 miles) off the port of Esbjerg. (Photo: Jorgen True/AFP/Getty Images)

The government thinks that nuclear is cheaper and more efficient than wind energy

He also believes the energy sector is "quite a powerful lobby" and that, beyond direct lobbying of the government by nuclear energy companies, many Labour MPs have nuclear reactor workers as their constituents.

But at the moment the government's vision, as stated in the energy bill, centers around "energy security, climate change, and affordability." For them, that means energy diversity in an effort to keep prices lower for the consumer. But consumer watchdogs like Which? worry about whether these government price guarantees will be handed on to consumers. The CEO of RWE npower, Paul Massara, thinks they will. He told the Financial Times that this new deal "at double the current electricity price, bill payers need to understand that this higher costs will, in time, feed through and put additional pressure on the price consumers pay for energy."

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