Britain commits to nuclear power despite Fukushima

Britain has agreed to build the country’s first nuclear power plant in a generation, despite concerns raised by the triple-meltdown in Fukushima as the U.K. seeks to secure its future energy needs and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The government struck a deal with Electricite de France and a group of Chinese investors Monday to build the country’s first nuclear power plant since 1995 — a massive project that will bring in £16 billion ($25.9 billion) of investment to keep the lights on amid declining supplies of North Sea gas and rapidly escalating fuel costs.

“If people at home want to be able to keep watching the television, be able to turn the kettle on, and benefit from electricity, we have got to make these investments,” Energy Secretary Ed Davey told the BBC. “It is essential to keep the lights on and to power British business.”

The deal for the new reactor, which will be built at Hinkley Point in southwest England, underlines the desperation politicians across Europe face in meeting energy needs amid dwindling fossil fuel resources and rising costs.

Davey said the deal, subject to European Union approval, was necessary as Britain faced a “looming energy crisis” in the next decade owing to years of underinvestment.

Britain has placed nuclear power at the heart of its low-carbon energy policy, in stark contrast to Europe’s biggest economy Germany, which decided two years ago to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, following years of anti-nuclear protests and the shock of the Fukushima crisis, which erupted in 2011. But the effort needed to ramp up renewable energy sources to replace domestic nuclear reactors is proving to be costly: not only do many new wind, solar, water and biomass plants need to be built, but Germany’s energy grid has to be overhauled to balance the fluctuating supply such power sources provide.

The British deal could meanwhile potentially push domestic energy prices up even higher according to experts, and risks stoking a political row over soaring living costs in Britain.

The project is aimed at providing Britain with secure and reliable low-carbon electricity, and will create thousands of jobs, the government said.

“Today we have a deal for the first nuclear power station in a generation to be built in Britain,” said Prime Minister David Cameron, who heads a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

“This also 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.”

EDF Group will have a 45-50 percent stake, while China General Nuclear and China National Nuclear Corporation will together take a 30-40 percent stake. Areva will take a 10 percent holding.

The French presidency hailed the agreement as a “historic investment,” after a telephone conversation between Francois Hollande and Cameron.

The accord guarantees an agreed price for the electricity over 35 years at £92.50 per megawatt hour plus inflation — which is about double the prevailing market rate in Britain.

This price could fall to £89.50 per megawatt hour, if EDF’s plans for two nuclear reactors in Sizewell, on England’s eastern coast, win permission to be built.

Crucially, however, the government will pay the difference if the market price for electricity falls underneath this guaranteed level — and the money will be funded by levies on domestic energy bills.

British anti-nuclear campaigners slammed the deal and urged the government to focus on renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

“Instead of subsidizing nuclear energy production, the government should be investing more in safe, clean and affordable renewable energy,” said Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Britain has 16 nuclear reactors that provide about 20 percent of the country’s energy needs.

At full capacity, the two new reactors will be able to produce 7 percent of Britain’s electricity, enough to power 5 million homes. A new power station plans to be operational by 2023.

One of the last barriers to the British deal was removed during a visit to Asia last week by Treasury chief George Osborne, who announced that Chinese firms would be permitted to invest in civilian nuclear projects.

The deal for the new reactor — which won’t start generating power until 2023 — is also a boon to China, which relies on foreign technology for its generating stations and is trying to develop its own reactors.

“China is wishing to become a global leader within the nuclear sector,” said Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House.

China General Nuclear Corp. and China National Nuclear Corp. are majority-owned by the government in Beijing. And while the technical expertise will mainly come from French companies, in particular EDF, which is controlled by the French government, Chinese engineers will gain experience and learn about navigating a complex licensing process.

The ability to partner with existing players will also help China gain a foothold in foreign markets — a showcase opportunity to eventually export its own work.

“That opens doors,” Froggatt said.

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