Britain is at an energy crossroads. Will it approve a costly new nuclear power plant as a step towards a clean-energy future? Or will it rely on fossil fuels to cover power shortfalls?
By Mehdi Belayachi-Rigoreau and Céline Rottier
Britain is at a crossroads: To approve a costly, new nuclear power plant as a less than perfect means of eventually ensuring a clean-energy future?
Or to follow Germany and Japan’s lead by eschewing nuclear for renewable energy sources, even if it means relying on fossil fuels — which contribute to global warming — to cover supply shortfalls?
The Hinkley Point C project seemed on track to become the first new nuclear power station in Britain since 1995 until late last month, when the country’s new government unexpectedly announced that the proposed plant will need to clear yet another review.
That means that the future of the $24.5 billion project, originally launched in 2013, will remain up in the air for at least a few more months.
Public pressure on Britain’s leaders to reconsider the project, once seen as crucial to Britain’s clean-energy future, has mounted since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.
But before British policymakers follow Germany’s example and abandon nuclear power altogether, they will have to find an alternative that is environmentally friendly and economically viable.
There’s a risk of greater, not less, production of greenhouse gases.
Many environmentalists note that nuclear waste is typically buried deep in the ground, where it needs to lie for up to millions of years before it finally becomes harmless.
But a competitive economy needs reliable supplies at a reasonable price. Clean-energy sources such as wind or solar offer intermittent supplies that need to be complemented by uninterrupted sources such as hydro-power or fossil fuel-fired plants.
Germany plans to phase out its nuclear plants by 2022 and to replace them with intermittent energy sources. But Germany has some of the highest electricity prices in the world, and it struggles to accommodate the fluctuating nature of renewables. Consequently, large industrial companies often find themselves disconnected from the grid.
That means that German households must shoulder the lion’s share of the costs associated with Energiewende — the transition to renewable energy — to preserve the country’s industrial competitiveness.
Since Germany relies heavily on cheap coal to make up for electricity shortages stemming from the use of wind and solar power, there’s a risk that the transition to intermittent forms of energy will lead to greater, not less, production of greenhouse gases.
There are threats associated with phasing out nuclear power.
Since the Fukushima catastrophe, Japan has resorted to liquefied natural gas imports to make up for a shortfall in nuclear power. But soaring LNG imports have placed a heavy burden on the country’s trade balance, piling pressure on Japan to ignore public opposition and restart its nuclear plants to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel.
In effect, nuclear power, which was at the heart of Japan’s 2010 energy plan, would allow the country to respect its international commitment to cut greenhouse emissions.
As Britain studies its next move, it should keep in mind that Hinkley Point C would satisfy about seven percent of the UK’s electricity needs.
Fossil fuels are still the country’s largest source of energy, and as domestic production declines, Britain finds itself increasingly dependent on imports. Any decrease in nuclear production would immediately undermine Britain’s energy security.
The costs associated with the construction of nuclear facilities may currently be high and unpredictable, but so are those linked to energy dependence, global warming, economic instability and air pollution. Those are the tangible threats associated with the phasing out of nuclear power in the UK.
Mehdi Belayachi-Rigoreau works as on-site banking supervisor. He is a faculty lecturer at the Sciences Po School of Public Affairs. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from McGill University and a master’s in public policy from Sciences Po Paris, where he specialized in energy policy.
Céline Rottier has worked for boutique energy and infrastructure financial advisory teams specializing in renewable energy supplies and liquefied natural gas. She has advised the energy multinational Repsol. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Delft University of Technology.