United Kingdom The British Atomic 'Green Revolution'

For years, nuclear energy was seen as an "unattractive option" in Great Britain, and the country's nuclear phase-out was in fact a done deal. But in light of soaring oil prices, the British government is rethinking its position, even praising nuclear power as an environmentally friendly alternative.
Von Hans Hoyng

When it comes to nuclear power, Great Britain suffers from a collective memory lapse. Only 12 years ago, a royal commission found that it was "morally indefensible" to support nuclear power, as long as there as no viable means for disposing of nuclear waste. And for many years, the Labour government under former Prime Minister Tony Blair viewed the production of energy using nuclear fission as an "unattractive option."

The United Kingdom seemed destined to become a country without nuclear power. Today, 26 aging reactors have already been shut down, leaving only 19 still in operation. They satisfy less than 20 percent of Britain's electricity requirements, or about 3.5 percent of total energy consumption. By 2023, all but one of the country's nuclear power plants are scheduled to be out of commission.

But that was yesterday. Today, oil is at more than $140 (€90) a barrel. One result is that the government -- still Labour, but with a new prime minister named Gordon Brown -- has suddenly changed its position on nuclear energy, now dubbing it eco-energy.

'Gateway to a Nuclear Renaissance'

Last month, Blair's successor announced the beginning of a "green revolution." What Brown calls the "most dramatic change in our energy policy since the advent of nuclear power" includes both the construction of 7,000 wind turbines and the installation of roughly seven million solar panels, as well as the resurrection of nuclear energy.

According to the government's plans, the construction of modern nuclear power plants will create 100,000 new jobs and, in the long term, the country will derive up to 40 percent of its energy from nuclear fission once again. To this end, at least 20 new reactors would have to be built, preferably next to those that have been shut down, which would help shorten the approval process. The first of these new plants, says Brown, could go online by as early as 2018. According to Secretary of State for Business and Enterprise John Hutton, nuclear energy is "indispensable" and Great Britain has the potential to "become the gateway for a nuclear renaissance throughout Europe."

Even before adopting its new stance on nuclear energy, the British government encouraged domestic and foreign companies to express their interest in building new reactors. The government agency that supervises the decommissioning of old plants is offering large plots of land for sale at 18 sites. The first preliminary testing of the relevant reactor systems have already been completed.

Gas Supplies Are Shrinking

The about-face is unlikely to face any significant political challenges. The opposition Conservatives have merely criticized the government's announcement as "overly ambitious." The real controversy in Great Britain today is far more heated than any debates over nuclear power. The industry -- and with it the Conservatives and a handful of Labour ministers -- is calling for the rapid construction of new coal power plants, warning that supply bottlenecks could happen as soon as 2013, partly due to shrinking North Sea gas reserves.

This explains why only a few Labour MPs and environmental groups are objecting to the construction of new nuclear power plants. Their strategy is to tie up the necessary permits in court. The Scottish National Party, the strongest group in the regional parliament in Edinburgh, has vowed to oppose any nuclear plans on their soil.

Their wish is likely to come true. Because most of Britain's electricity is consumed in southern England, no one had even considered Scotland as a possible site for new nuclear power plants.

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