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Government invests £12.5m in nuclear project

nuclear landscape

The UK has affirmed its position in support of European nuclear expansion as it yesterday (12 March), hosted the signing of a joint communiqué between 12 EU member states with an interest in nuclear energy.

Representatives from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the UK  signed the commitment in London yesterday as they ‘set out their belief that nuclear energy can play a part of the EU’s future low carbon energy mix’ and agreed to collaborate ‘to seek continuous improvements of nuclear safety, within and beyond the EU borders, and ensure that the EU nuclear safety framework remains robust’. 

Countries wishing to construct new nuclear power stations also signalled that ‘an investment environment must be created taking account of the long term nature of nuclear infrastructure projects in the EU’. 

According to the communiqué, the signatories further agreed that member states should continue to be free to determine their own energy mixes, and to ‘press ahead with their decarbonisation objectives through the deployment of the fullest possible range of low carbon technologies’. This, it says, could include renewables, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear power. 

Despite this, the UK government has yet to set a firm target for a decarbonisation target for the electricity industry. Instead, government’s recent Energy Bill outlined that a decision on whether to introduce a decarbonisation target will not be made until 2016, to coincide with the publication of the fifth carbon budget by the Committee on Climate Change.

£12.5 million of UK funding for research reactor 

As well as the commitment to the future use and support of nuclear power, the UK and French governments pledged to fund the 100 megawatt-tonne Jules Horowitz research reactor, with the UK assigning £12.5 million of funding to the project. 

UK participation in the programme, designed to research nuclear medicine, will be led by the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) to allow UK-based academics and the nuclear industry ‘guaranteed access to the reactor, and enable collaboration on safety and innovation’. 

Speaking on the signing of the communiqué, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey said: “It’s vital for our economy that we work with our European partners to make the EU a leading destination for investment in new low-carbon energy infrastructure. 

“This communiqué signals a move to a stronger, better and closer working relationship between member states on nuclear energy. By working together to enable low-carbon energy projects to come forward, we will go some way to reducing the EU’s carbon emissions and ensuring greater energy security.” 

Minister of State for Energy John Hayes added: “Nuclear power not only provides vast amounts of low-carbon electricity, but thousands of skilled jobs too. We’ve been clear on its role in a UK energy mix and I’m pleased that a significant number of European nations have today signalled the importance they attach to nuclear power. 

“It’s vital that we cooperate on issues like safety and research and development. We are putting our money where our mouth is by confirming our contribution of £12.5 million to the Jules Horowitz research reactor in France and guaranteeing the UK access rights to the project.” 

Public opposition 

The news of the UK’s growing support for nuclear energy in its future energy mix appears to fly in the face of public and environmental opinion. 

In January, Cumbria County Council voted against continuing the search for potentially hosting a £12 billion underground disposal facility for radioactive waste in the area due to doubts over the suitability of the geology at Cumbria, as well as fears over damaging the Lake District’s image.

The decision came as a blow to government, as West Cumbria was the only remaining British region willing to voluntarily host the controversial site.

Despite saying the decision was “disappointing”, Davey said he “respected” the decision, adding that it was “absolutely vital that we get to grips with our national nuclear legacy” as the issue “has been kicked into the long grass for far too long”. 

Government’s ability to support nuclear investment and manage the nuclear waste already in existence in the UK has also been criticised of late, as last week, the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee called on the UK government to ‘urgently come up with a contingency plan’ for power as it billed its plans to build a fleet of nuclear power plants by 2025 as ‘ambitious’ at best and ‘unrealistic’ at worst. This, the committee said, was due to the ‘lack of progress that has been made to date in bringing forward carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in the UK’.

Further to this, the dangerous legacy of nuclear waste has also brought the technology under the spotlight recently, after the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released a report showing that the cost of decommissioning the Sellafield nuclear waste site in Cumbria has already reached £67.5 billion and shows ‘no indication’ of slowing down.

US nuclear industry threatened by wind influx

In related news, Bloomberg news has reported that in the US, the nuclear energy industry is suffering due to a $25 billion upsurge in wind power following a federal tax credit that expired at the end of 2012.

According to utilities companies speaking to Bloomberg, a record 13,124 megawatts of wind power was added to the nation’s power grid in 2012, up 28 percent from 2011. This prevelance of wind power has reportedly threatened the future of other industries, including nuclear, as on windy days, the power generated by wind turbines can 'flood the grid' and cause energy prices to drop below zero (called 'negative pricing'), forcing other industries to pay grid operators to take the power they produce.

Chief Executive Officer of Chicago-based energy company Exelon Corp. (EXC), Christopher Crane, said if the wind-energy was to continue be "over-developed",  there would be a "very high probability that existing safe, reliable nuclear plants will no longer be competitive and will have to be retired early”.