Nuclear Energy Picks Up Momentum in Europe Despite Resistance

By Jason Simpkins
Associate Editor

The British government has approved the construction of new nuclear power stations, marking a shift occurring throughout the European mainstream that has traditionally been skeptical of atomic energy.

According to the Associated Press, Business Secretary John Hutton told Parliament that nuclear power "should have a role to play in this country's future energy mix, alongside other low-carbon sources." His statement echoed assertions previously made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The British government has lobbied strongly in favor of nuclear energy over the past decade but has encountered stiff resistance.

Greenpeace Puts Up A Fight

In February 2007, a judge ruled that the British government's consultation process before making the decision to build the new nuclear power stations was "seriously flawed" and "procedurally unfair." 

Greenpeace accused the government of reneging on its promise to carry out "the fullest consultation" before making a decision to build the stations. It complained that the government failed to present clear information on key issues surrounding a new generation of nuclear power stations, such as disposal of radioactive waste and financial costs related to the project. After another inquiry into the project, the initiative was passed.

"In reality, nuclear power stations will not solve our energy problems and that's because there's a lie at the heart of the government's energy policy," said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace. "We need energy efficiency, cleaner use of fossil fuels, renewables and state of the art decentralized power stations like those in Scandinavia. That's the way to defeat climate change and ensure energy security."

Sauven also expressed concerns about the cost efficiency, the disposal of nuclear waste, and the possibility of an eco-tragedy on par with the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979 or Chernobyl in 1986.

Greenpeace isn't the only one apprehensive about nuclear power plants. European countries have been particularly negative on the issue. Bans on new nuclear plant construction are currently in place in Italy and Belgium. Sweden and Germany have committed to phasing nuclear power completely out of their supply. A guardian/ICM poll showed last year that opponents of nuclear energy narrowly outnumbered supporters 49%-44% in Europe.  

What Europe Has to Gain From Nuclear Power

"Going nuclear" has its benefits. And many countries with emerging markets think the potential gains outweigh the possible risks. Great Britain is in a particularly vulnerable position, as about 40% of its power plants are gas-fired. That means it is heavily dependent on natural gas imports from Russia and the Middle East.

On Jan. 4, Npower, a British electricity and gas firm owned by Germany's RWE, announced an increase in its household-energy tariffs. Electricity prices for its customers rose by an average of 12.7% and natural-gas prices by 17.2%. Rises for some customers were as high as 27%.

Npower and other energy firms say gas is expensive because oil is expensive. Dwindling reserves and insatiable demand from the rapidly growing economies have resulted in a supply crunch.

Also, Gazprom OAR, Russia's state-run energy monopoly supplies 25% of Europe's gas. It has also hiked prices and threatened to cut supplies on a fairly routine basis. In August, Gazprom threatened to cut off gas supplies to Belarus in an attempt to extort payment on a $456 million debt. Belarus eventually acquiesced with a $190 million payment. Two months later, Gazprom threatened to cut supplies to Ukraine over a $1.3 billion debt.

So it's no wonder why many European nations are beginning to consider nuclear power a plausible solution. France already relies on nuclear power for 80% of its electricity needs. Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania are planning new reactors.

Greenpeace's Sauven said that the new power generators approved by the government would only add 4% more energy capacity. But Britain's current nuclear power stations produce approximately 20% of the country's energy supply, and all but one of them will be closed down by 2023. And environmentally speaking, the British government has also been charged with the task of cutting carbon emissions by 60% of 1990 levels by 2050.

"Set against the challenges of climate change, and security of supply, the evidence in support of new nuclear power stations is compelling," Business Secretary Hutton said.

Hutton also assured the public Thursday that private energy companies - not the government - would pay for the plants, and that most would be built on the sites of existing stations.

"The British decision sends a very strong and positive signal to the industry," Colette Lewiner, who monitors energy for the Capgemini consultancy in Paris, told the International Herald Tribune. "Britain will be the first European country after Finland and France to build new reactors, at a time when Belgium and Spain are revisiting their positions on whether to keep a moratorium on new nuclear facilities."

Related Articles and Links:

  • Associated Press:
    Britain Backs New Nuclear Power Plants