Image courtesy of ilkerender
In a move widely predicted by both government watchers and environmental groups, the British government has approved the construction of a new set of nuclear power stations. John Hutton, the Labour business secretary, made the announcement yesterday, pledging that the first of the new plants should be built "well before 2020." "The view of the government is that it is in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations and that we should therefore take the active steps to facilitate this," he said.
Despite assurances that the public wouldn't be forced to foot part of the bill through the issuance of subsidies, many MPs - including several from Hutton's own party - expressed doubts that any new nuclear reactor could successfully operate without public subsidies. They are particularly concerned about the voter backlash they could face if the public is saddled with the costs of decommissioning the stations and of disposing of the nuclear waste. This view is also shared by many independent analysts and consultants, including some not typically associated with anti-nuclear movement; Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren, senior fellows at the Cato Institute (hardly a liberal bulwark), argued that France, China and other nuclear-friendly countries had demonstrated that it wasn't possible to build cost-effective reactors.
"Nuclear power appeals to state planners, not market actors. We like nuclear power as much as everyone else on the right. But friends don't let friends get hooked on subsidies," they wrily concluded in a recent Forbes piece.
In a recent interview, Hutton himself acknowledged the paucity of nuclear reactors worldwide operating without public subsidy; he argued, however, that the rapidly escalating cost of fossil fuels would change the economics of nuclear energy. Though he didn't disclose any specific locations, Hutton said the government was assuming that companies would be building reactors in "areas in the vicinity of existing nuclear facilities."
Nick Clegg, head of the Liberal Democrat Party, decried the government's decision, arguing that: "The government must be honest about how much it will cost to build and run new nuclear power stations and who is going to pick up the bill. The government should abandon these expensive white elephants and focus on increasing energy efficiency and the use of genuinely renewable technologies."
Given the many unanswered questions that still surround nuclear power - issues of cost, safety and waste disposal - one could well ask whether it is really in Britain's best interest to embrace this new round of reactors.