Nuclear power Q&A: green light for new age of UK energy

Oct 21, 2013

Government strikes deal with EDF Energy but householders could be forced to foot the bill

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THE GOVERNMENT has given the go-ahead for the UK's first nuclear station to be built in 20 years. The Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset will be developed by a consortium led by France's EDF Energy and partly funded by Chinese investors. It will be the first time a nuclear station has been built in the UK without money from the British taxpayer - but the deal is still mired in controversy...

How much nuclear power do we use? The UK currently has 16 nuclear reactors generating about 18 per cent of our electricity. This has fallen from 25 per cent in the early 1990s as plants have been shut down over the years. All but one of the current reactors will be retired by 2023. Initially the Labour government looked unlikely to replace the decommissioned plants as it appeared to be uneconomical. However, in 2006 Tony Blair announced that a new generation of nuclear power stations were "back on the agenda with a vengeance" - a year after the government's chief adviser Sir David King voiced his support for a nuclear power revival. The Coalition government has pushed on with the new nuclear power programme, despite opposition from a number of senior Liberal Democrats.

What is the government planning? In 2010 the Coalition approved eight sites as potentially suitable for new nuclear power stations. These were Bradwell, Essex; Hartlepool; Heysham, Lancashire; Hinkley Point, Somerset; Oldbury, south Gloucestershire; Sellafield, Cumbria; Sizewell, Suffolk; and Wylfa, Anglesey. The first to go ahead is the Hinkley C site, which is likely to cost up to £16bn, with two reactors and the potential to power up to 5 million homes. The expansion is expected to be completed by 2023. The rest of the new nuclear plants should be operational by 2030.

Why is nuclear power so contentious? Nuclear power itself has been a controversial topic for years. The government sees the new programme as a shift away from fossil fuels towards low-carbon power. Those in favour see nuclear power as a way to help the UK avoid running out of energy and relying too heavily on imported gas, which could affect energy security. However, critics claim that new nuclear power stations will result in the continued production of dangerous nuclear waste, as well as an increased risk from terrorism and radioactive accidents. Greenpeace, which opposed the new programme, says nuclear power will not stop climate change and, worse, it will block the UK's development of renewable energy, such as wind power.

Is it safe? Those opposed to nuclear energy often point to the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. A tsunami and earthquake in Japan caused the release of radioactive materials from the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant - the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. Even after two years, around 160,000 people were unable to return to their homes. It triggered the immediate shutdown of plants in Japan and encouraged Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain to phase out their remaining plants. The UK government looked as if it might back away from its plans too - but it later pushed on. Some believe a Fukushima-type disaster is inevitable but others point out that there have been relatively very few disasters in more than 14,500 cumulative reactor years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries. The World Nuclear Association says the risks from nuclear power plants are "minimal" compared with other commonly accepted risks.

Why is the latest deal so controversial? It is current government policy that the construction of any new nuclear power stations in the UK will be led and financed by the private sector - but critics have warned that householders will still pay the price. The government and the consortium have agreed a "strike price" - a state-backed guaranteed minimum tariff for electricity - of £92.50 for every megawatt of power Hinkley C generates per hour. This will fall to £89.50 for every megawatt of power if EDF Group goes ahead with plans to develop a new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk. Setting a minimum price for electricity that is twice the current level will mean an unwelcome increase in bills, say critics.

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