Ticking Time Bomb

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Is the long-awaited "nuclear renaissance" starting to run out of steam even before it has got under way? It is too early to be sure, but there are disconcerting signs. Intriguingly, the nuclear industry itself is beginning to behave as if it is in trouble.

At first sight everything in the garden is growing – if not glowing – splendidly. On Wednesday, ministers reaffirmed atomic power as central to their strategy for building a low-carbon Britain. EDF (chief spin doctor, first sibling Andrew Brown) wants to build four reactors in Suffolk and Somerset – the first for over 20 years – and other companies are also drawing up plans.  

The Italian senate has just voted 154-1 to overturn a 22-year-old prohibition on new nuclear power stations. Sweden has scrapped an even more longstanding ban. Spain has begun to reverse a policy of phasing out the atom, and Angela Merkel has promised to do the same if she wins elections in September.

Russia, India and China are all pressing ahead with building programmes. This needs to continue – and accelerate – if nuclear power is to fulfil what is promised for it. The OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency estimates that an average of 12 stations will have to be built each year until 2030, rising to 54 thereafter, if the atom is to have an impact on meeting rising electricity demand and cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

But so far not enough are under construction even to make up for old ones being taken out of service. And troubles are multiplying. They began at the site hailed as heralding "the rebirth of the nuclear industry", a Finnish island in the Gulf of Bosnia, where the prototype of the new reactor EDF plans for Britain was meant to start operation this year.

Construction has proved so tricky that it is now 50 per cent over budget and three years behind schedule. Costs have also escalated at the only other reactor of its type, being built in northern France, while one study showed that half of all those being constructed around the world are behind schedule. "Economic woes" have caused two reactors planned for Texas to be postponed for up to 20 years.

 The state of Ontario has suspended building two more. A serious accident in a German reactor just days after it had undergone a $420 million refurbishment has blighted Merkel's hopes of rescuing the atom, while Canada's existing reactors have been found to have dangerous design flaws.

Meanwhile, President Obama has shown himself unenthusiastic about the industry. Worse, Britain's Nuclear Installation Inspectorate has written to EDF to voice "serious concerns" about the safety of reactors it plans to build in Britain, though the company is confident "these matters will be resolved".

All this is beginning to take the bloom off the nuclear business. "The warning lights are now flashing more brightly than a year ago about the cost of new nuclear," says Caren Byrd, an executive director of Morgan Stanley's global utility and power group. Indeed, last month Moody's Investor Services announced it was taking "a more negative view" of new nuclear.

This is all too familiar. It was rising costs and poor delivery schedules that did for the first generation of nuclear power, while safety issues proved to be trickier than expected. Investors lost confidence: no reactors were built in liberalised energy markets.

When in trouble the nuclear industry has traditionally sought government support and tried to stifle rival technologies. That seems to be happening again. EDF has begged ministers to fix the price of carbon from fossil fuel emissions to make nuclear competitive, but Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has just ruled that out.

Nuclear firms have threatened to drop plans for new reactors unless the Government scales back its targets for windpower, a demand largely backed by the CBI this week. But if we are to keep the lights on, and cut back carbon emissions, we are going to need every technology available and – since it will be a decade or so before the first reactors can start up – we are going to need a "renewable renaissance" first.

 
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