The growing body of legislation designed to address climate change by cutting carbon emissions is helping to secure a pivotal role for nuclear power in many countries’ future energy policy, says Chris Webb.

Misleading, seriously flawed and procedurally unfair,” were the damning words used by a High Court judge just two months ago to describe the British government’s plans to clear the path for construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. But an unrepentant Tony Blair vowed to press ahead with his key weapon in the battle against climate change despite the legal challenge by environmental campaigner Greenpeace.

Current nuclear capacity and capacity under construction
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Then, in March, little more than a week after European leaders met in Brussels to agree a 20 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, Blair was to raise the stakes again. He pledged to introduce legislation that would commit Britain to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a whopping 60 per cent by 2050, with binding five-yearly targets along the way. Few believe that such an ambitious agenda is possible without new nuclear power stations to replace the UK’s ageing fleet, even with a substantial input from renewable sources. The question now is not if, but when the first contracts will be signed.

Blair will have to rethink his government’s public consultation process as a result of the landmark court case in February, but few believe the event achieved anything more meaningful than a brief stalling of an energy White Paper, which could now be published as early as this month in spite of the legal hiccup.

The prime minister’s resolve to put nuclear power at the very heart of energy policy is made all the more baffling since an earlier White Paper, only four years ago, singled out new investment in the technology as ‘unattractive.’ It proposed instead the use of wholesale adoption of windpower and other renewables to meet tough GHG targets. The U-turn is complete.

Revolutionary bill

The draft Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind anywhere, represents a “revolutionary step,” in the fight to combat global warming, the prime minister said, and sets out a framework for moving the UK to a low-carbon economy.

It also sends the strongest message yet to an eager civil nuclear power industry that an effective three-decade long moratorium on new build is finally at an end.

British Energy has held talks with a number of Europe’s largest power companies including the French group EDF and Germany’s RWE about building a new generation of nuclear power plants in the UK. E.ON is also understood to be interested, as is Drax Power, the FTSE listed owner of the country’s biggest coal fired power station, it emerged in March.

The government has already announced a number of incentives to companies wishing to develop new nuclear stations, including a streamlining of the planning laws. It is also expected to make it financially viable for the UK’s existing reactors to be replaced, for example by guaranteeing a minimum electricity tariff for nuclear power.

An enlarged European Union (EU) is emerging as equally bullish on the subject of nuclear power. In January EU pesident José Manuel Barroso, flanked by energy and environment commissioners Andris Piebalgs and Stavros Dimas, presented the Eoropean Commission’s (EC’s)eagerly-anticipated blueprint on the future of EU energy policy. An Energy Policy for Europe gives explicit recognition for the first time in an official EC policy document to the important role that nuclear energy should play in helping the community meet its security of supply, climate change and competitiveness challenges.

A key political issue

The European Atomic Forum (FORATOM) was among those quick to welcome the EU’s recognition of the role and importance of nuclear energy in forging an effective and sustainable long-term EU energy strategy. It noted the reference to nuclear as ‘one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide-free energy.’

It is a significant observation, especially as the EU’s own research data note that the share of nuclear power and renewables in Europe’s primary energy supply mix could double to 40 per cent by 2050, the target date for Britain’s most ambitious emissions reductions. Among those EU member states most committed to nuclear power is France, an enthusiastic devotee of the technology since the oil crisis of the 1970s, spurred on by its desire towards achieving energy independence.

Generating around three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, France is a major exporter of the technology and is the world’s biggest net exporter of electricity. President Jacques Chirac has announced the fourth generation of nuclear reactors, using nuclear waste as a source of energy, and France has also been chosen as the host nation for the international Iter experimental fusion reactor.

In Europe as a whole there are 173 existing nuclear reactors, excluding Russia, while four are under construction and others are planned. On a national scale, however, there is generally a wide divergence of approach to the technology. Germany and Spain, for example, are committed to phasing out nuclear power while several others, including Ukraine and Finland, are building new power plants.

Nuclear power has also been a key issue in the accession of new entrants to the EU club. Ukraine, for example, would like to join, but receipt of its application was at best lukewarm, the country’s Chernobyl nuclear power station having been the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.

Lithuania, which pledged to close its Ignalina plant – based on the same design as Chernobyl – by 2009 as part of its negotiations to join the EU, has been seeking a delay to enable it to find other energy sources.

Joining the EU in 2004, Poland’s consumption of electricity is forecast to grow by 90 per cent by 2025. Currently producing some 32 GW of power, mostly from coal fired plant, the country’s cabinet decided in early 2005 that for energy diversification and to reduce carbon and sulphur emissions it should move swiftly to introduce nuclear power, so that an initial plant might be operating soon after 2020. In July 2006 the new prime minister reaffirmed the need to build nuclear power plants, and mentioned the possible involvement of technology developed by France.

Nuclear frenzy

The ‘dash for gas’ of the 1990s has suddenly transmuted to a ‘dash for nuclear power’ that is equally frenzied in the United States. There, the Department of Energy (DOE) commended the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) decision to approve the first-ever Early Site Permit (ESP) for the Exelon Generation Company’s Clinton site, in central Illinois.

The decision marks a major milestone in President Bush’s plan to expand the use of safe and clean nuclear power. Energy secretary Samuel W. Bodman said: “NRC approval of the Clinton Early Site Permit represents a major accomplishment in this Admini-stration’s effort to address the barriers and stimulate deployment of new nuclear power plants in the USA.

“By demonstrating effectiveness and predictability in the licensing process, utilities will have the information they need to make sound business decisions that can lead to the construction of new nuclear power plants.” The ESP approval marks a significant milestone for the four-year, cost-shared project with the DOE and Chicago-based Exelon, aimed at demonstrating the new and previously untested licensing process for locating new nuclear plants in the USA.

DOE has partnered with Exelon and two other companies, Entergy and Dominion Energy, since September 2002 to demonstrate the ESP process.

The development also supports DOE’s Nuclear Power 2010 programme, a joint government and industry cost-shared effort to identify sites for new nuclear power plants, develop and bring to market advanced nuclear plant technologies, and evaluate the business case for building new nuclear power plants. It demonstrates previously untested regulatory processes.

Dominion Virginia Power, meanwhile, edges closer to becoming the first company to order a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s, after a massive overhaul of Virginia’s state utility laws. Virginia’s new utility bill will help companies raise the billions of dollars necessary to build new plants by guaranteeing higher profits for the electricity they produce, and allows Dominion to start passing the cost to its customers during construction. The company first applied in 2003 to build a $3 billion plant at North Anna, which is outside Richmond and already has two nuclear reactors. The permit would give preliminary approval for Dominion to build on that specific site in the future.

Industry leaders representing the American Council on Global Nuclear Competitiveness met with Bodman recently to discuss a series of recommendations that would restore the United States as a leader in nuclear energy design, manufacturing, service and supply. Companies represented at the meeting included ATK, ConverDyn, EnergySolutions, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, USEC, Northrop Grumman and Westinghouse.

They received an encouraging response from Bodman, who told them: “As our need for energy increases, so too does our need for nuclear power, and the Energy Department has a strong set of nuclear programmes that we believe can create an environment for a nuclear renaissance.”

The sobering news is that present levels of spending on power infrastructure generally in the USA may not be enough. The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) reports that the demand for electricity is expected to rise 19 per cent by 2015, which represents 141 GW. The problem is that USA generation capacity is only anticipated to grow by 6 per cent, or 57 GW, of which some 40 per cent is expected to come from natural gas fired.

However, American proponents of nuclear power believe the energy security argument is strong enough to sway public opinion behind their cause. Current indications would appear to confirm this.