The Austrian government has finally filed its legal challenge against the deal that facilitates subsidies for a nuclear power plant in the UK.

After a protracted period of delay, the European Court of Justice has received the official objection against the decision by the European Commission to allow EU-granted state subsidies for a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C in southwest England.

“Subsidies are there to support modern technologies that lie in the general interest of all EU member states. This is not the case with nuclear power,” the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, said.
David Cameron and Werner Faymann
The Austrian action has come in for severe criticism by the Director General of the World Nuclear Association. In a statement to Power Engineering International responding to the news, Agneta Rising accused Faymann’s government of disrespecting national autonomy on energy. “It is one thing to have an opinion, it is quite another to try and force your opinion on someone else.”

“The UK public, indeed people in all countries, have the right to choose nuclear to meet their energy needs and to help address climate concerns if they so wish. It is a pity that the Austrian government has decided not to respect that right.”

Rising added that she was sceptical of Austrian intentions in challenging the legality of the subsidy arrangement agreed for Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, as approved by the European Commission.

“Media statements from Austrian officials make it clear that they are pursuing this action because of their own anti-nuclear agenda. The action is profoundly misinformed and damaging to global efforts to address climate change.”

Austria’s environment minister, Andrä Rupprechter, said nuclear energy was no longer able to survive economically and should “not be artificially resuscitated through state subsidies”. “Instead of funding unsafe and costly energy forms that are outdated, we have to support Europe’s energy turnaround with the expansion of renewable energies,” he said.

Leadership from the nuclear sector are of the belief that the Austrian challenge will not be successful. However at a Platts energy conference in London recently one of the Austrian government’s chief legal advisers, Dr Dorte Fouquet, had told power executives that the average delay associated with such objections, whether ultimately successful or not, was five to eight years.

If that proves to be correct, the disruptive action would represent a serious body blow to the British government’s objectives with regard to energy security and decarbonisation. Whether the threatened delay materialises, Rising pointed out the crucial role nuclear power provides for UK in terms of reducing carbon.

“The countries that are leading on decarbonisation are using nuclear energy,” she said. “Not all countries are in Austria’s position – lucky enough to be able to count on hydro power built decades ago to provide roughly 65 per cent of their electricity today. Most others have to make pragmatic choices.”

“Nuclear power plants are one of a handful of technologies capable of generating low-carbon energy 24/7 and are the foundation of a healthy, modern electrical system in countries lucky enough to have them.”

Austria, who argue that the Hinkley Point C project is in breach of European law and risks distorting the energy market, may now face a diplomatic backlash from the British, which had been signposted earlier in the year.

In February, a leaked diplomatic cable indicated repercussions for Austria if it didn’t drop its opposition to the project.

The government of Luxembourg, as well as a group of German and Austrian energy providers also plan to fight the EU decision to back Hinkley Point C.

Under the disputed deal, Britain would help fund the construction of two reactors in south-west England. As part of the agreement, the British government would guarantee an elevated 35-year fixed electricity rate to EDF, the French energy group, which would be in charge of the building the plant.

“We are confident that the European commission’s state aid decision on Hinkley Point C is legally robust,” a spokeswoman for Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change said last week.

Opponents see Hinkley Point as an unnecessary show of support for nuclear energy when the use of renewables, such as wind and solar power, is beginning to take hold.

But the EU commission insists the choice of energy source, no matter how controversial, is strictly up to member states.

EU member Austria has no nuclear power stations. The country built a nuclear power station in the 1970s, but it never went into operation as citizens voted to mothball it in a 1978 referendum.

The next step in the Hinkley Point C project is intended to be the Final Investment Decision (FID), with the Chinese state visit to the UK in the autumn expected to be highly influential in moving the process on to the next phase.

Now that the Austrian lawsuit is on the table it remains to be seen to what extent those plans have been disrupted.