BRITAIN: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Soaring oil prices push UK to go nuclear
, June 10, 2006
British PM Tony Blair does not expect his commitment to nuclear power to create significant problems within his Labour Party. Unlike Australia, British Labour has never been divided on the issue of nuclear energy, writes Peter Westmore.The rising price of oil has pushed the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to announce that Britain will commence construction of a new round of nuclear reactors to generate electricity.
Britain's electricity is generated from three major sources: imported coal, whose price is increasing with oil prices, nuclear energy and gas.
The country faces acute gas shortages in the future. Gas is used for both domestic heating, cooking and to generate some 40 per cent of the country's electricity.
Demand for gas has risen by two-thirds since 1992 and is forecast to rise by another 14 per cent by 2011. But supply from the North Sea, the source of most of Britain's natural gas, is falling by around 7 to 8 per cent a year, according to the UK Offshore Operators Association. Unless the industry gets more investment, the decline in output could gather pace.
The association says that by 2020 the North Sea could provide 25 per cent of UK supplies on a best-case scenario. If things go badly, the figure might be nearer 10 per cent.Gas imports
Either way, Britain will have to rely on increasing imports of gas: through pipelines from the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway, and through terminals where liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be brought in from around the world.
Britain's increasing reliance on imported gas means higher prices, exposure to what happens on the world markets, and competition from energy-hungry countries such as China.
Gas supplies were threatened last winter by a row between Russia, which has huge reserves, and Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia's big producer, has already responded to suggestions that the UK might be nervous about it taking over Centrica, owner of British Gas, by pointedly observing there are other markets for its gas supplies.
Closer to home, the UK authorities have expressed concern about how the gas market in continental Europe functions, with evidence that, on occasion, Britain has been unable to import gas despite higher prices.
Mr Blair is also being pushed to adopt the nuclear option by the Kyoto Protocol, under which Britain and other nations promised to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2
Under the European Large Combustion Plant Directive, many of the nation's coal-fired plants will close in the next decade.
Without nuclear power, which generates no CO2
, it will be impossible to meet these targets.
While some people in Britain have proposed renewable energy sources such as wind and tidal power, they do not generate sufficient energy to make up the shortfall in base-load power.
Additionally, wind power in unreliable, and faces community objections from people who do not want huge wind turbines located in their areas.
Britain's nuclear reactors were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and are coming towards the end of their useful life, and are scheduled to be decommissioned.
Mr Blair signalled the change in direction in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, where he said that nuclear power, renewable energy and energy efficiency are "back on the agenda with a vengeance".
He said, "By 2025, if current policy is unchanged, there will be a dramatic gap in our targets to reduce CO2
emissions; we will become heavily dependent on gas; and at the same time move from being 80/90 per cent self-reliant in gas to 80/90 per cent dependent on foreign imports, mostly from the Middle East and Africa and Russia."
Some of the effects of the shortfall in gas supplies are already occurring. Next winter, Britain anticipates further shortages.
The development of new nuclear reactors will address the unrelated problems of reliance of overseas coal, declining gas reserves, and Britain's ageing reactors.
One factor which has apparently persuaded Mr Blair towards the nuclear option is that the problem of waste is now much smaller than expected, and the next generation of reactors will reduce waste even further.
One colleague of Mr Blair's said that modern nuclear power stations generate just a tenth of the waste created by older plants.
Mr Blair's statement was welcomed by leaders of British industry, but criticised by environmentalists, who believed that the British Government was going to abandon nuclear energy in favour of renewable sources and cutting energy consumption.
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said, "It's clear that Tony Blair is fixated with nuclear power and is determined to oversee a new generation of nuclear reactors rather than investing in clean and sustainable options that already exist."
Charles Clover, environment editor with the conservative London Telegraph
, declared that the new direction was "half-baked", and would not solve the problem it was intended to address.
Mr Blair does not expect his commitment to nuclear power to create significant problems within the Labour Party. Unlike Australia, British Labour has never been divided on the issue of nuclear energy.- Peter Westmore