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Nuclear

Is nuclear the UK's energy future?

When it comes to nuclear energy, Europe's policy is anything but unified. Individual countries are charting their own course - particularly Britain, where government plans include nuclear as an energy source.

In Brussels last week (22.02.13), an energy council met to discuss land-use changes for biofuels. The intent was to complete an internal EU energy market by 2014. The EU itself has committed to an energy roadmap that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Yet countries within the EU still have wildly varying energy policies, particularly when it comes to nuclear energy.

Germany is phasing out nuclear energy entirely. Thirteen other EU countries, however, continue to operate nuclear reactors. Following the Fukushima disaster, Spain and Switzerland banned the construction of any new reactors, while France not only runs a number of reactors in its own country, but operates eight out of nine reactors in the UK through Electricité de France (EDF).

Anti-nuclear protesters dressed in Halloween costumes take part in a demonstration in Tokyo October 28, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)

After Fukushima, Germany and Japan decided to switch off nuclear power

In Britain, where a new energy bill is progressing slowly through parliament, the current Conservative-Liberal coalition believes that nuclear energy has to be part of the country's future energy package, especially when much of its focus is on reducing carbon emissions by 2030.

The UK currently has 16 operational nuclear reactors at nine sites. Of the currently operating reactors, some have been around since the seventies, and are having their lives extended. Government plans indicate that it hopes to produce more nuclear energy on UK soil.

"The government wants to see new nuclear [power stations] come forward in the UK and has designated eight sites as potentially suitable," said a spokesman for the British Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC). ´

Hidden costs

Pete Roche works at "Spinwatch", an organization that aims to highlight the true meaning behind government PR, or "spin." Roche's area of expertise is "Nuclear Spin."

The UK government, he believes, "thinks they need [nuclear power] because there are an awful lot of coal fired stations due to close over the next few years, and the gas from the North Sea is also reducing."

He also feels that consumers are not being told the true cost of nuclear energy. "At the beginning of all this we were told that nuclear is the cheapest for providing low-carbon electricity," he told DW. "But if we do get to the price they seem to be talking about guaranteeing, which is 100 pounds per megawatt hour for the next 40 years, then it does not look so cheap."

A picture of the British nuclear reprocessing plant Sellafield in northwestern England. (Photo: AP Photo/Greenpeace, Sabine Vielmo)

Sellafield on the Cumbrian coast of Great Britain is the UK's oldest reactor, now being decommissioned

By comparison, offshore wind costs 130 British pounds per megawatt, a figure that might drop to 100 by 2030.

Roche told DW he sees Germany as "showing us the way."

"The first difference that I like to highlight between Germany and the UK is that Germany expects to reduce energy consumption by about 20 percent, I think. And the UK is expecting our energy consumption to increase. If we went for the kinds of reduction in consumption that Germany is going for, it would be much easier to implement a renewable energy strategy."

RWE

Energy policy decisions made in Germany have, in fact, had an effect on energy decision-making in the UK, but mostly from the standpoint of private energy companies. The German publically-traded energy company, RWE, which operates in the UK as RWE npower, has had to adapt to changing economic and political circumstances.

"The effect of the accelerated nuclear phaseout in Germany has led to RWE adopting a number of measures, including divestments, a capital increase, efficiency enhancements and a leaner capital expenditure budget," read an RWE statement sent to DW.

As the owner of the UK's largest offshore wind farm, RWE told DW that it would be impossible to generate all energy needs through renewable energies alone. But in a statement made last March, former CEO Volker Beckers continued to view nuclear energy as an integral part of the "mix" of energy sources needed to meet the UK's needs.

"We continue to believe that nuclear power has an important role to play in the UK's future energy mix," the CEO said.

Despite that statement, RWE has pulled out of the new build nuclear sites in the UK. They remain committed to low-carbon energy technologies in the UK.

Over the last three years RWE has invested £1.6 billion (1.86 billion euros) into new, highly-efficient gas-fired power stations in Britain. Over that same period it has invested over £1.2 billion into renewable energies.

A German wind park
(Photo: Brasilian section, Deutsche Welle)

Some experts say that relying on renewables is causing German industries to seek more reliable sources

Powerful lobbies

But at the UK policy level, a "green future" based purely on renewable energy is not something being considered in the current energy bill.

Roche says that nuclear energy still has cross-party support in the UK, citing only about "40 MPs who would oppose it".

Roche believes the government developed an energy policy that does not reflect today's realities - one developed in 2003, when nuclear energy appeared to be cheap and offshore wind was expensive and was quite scarce.

"As time has gone on it's become clearer and clearer that [nuclear] is not cheap at all. The reactors are overrunning and getting more and more expensive," he told DW. "But they somehow need to save face, and continue the policy that they have started."

He also believes the energy sector is "quite a powerful lobby" and that, beyond direct lobbying of the government by nuclear energy companies, many Labour MPs have nuclear reactor workers as their constituents.

Roche believes his country needs to "keep highlighting the good things that are happening in Germany."

But at the moment the government's vision, as stated in the energy bill, centers around "energy security, climate change, and affordability."

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