Government promotes dash for nuclear power

Britain needs urgently to replace its elderly power stations, and Business Minister John Hutton said on Wednesday the government was doing all it could to encourage firms to finance and build nuclear power plants.

He was speaking on the eve of an Anglo-French summit in London at which he and his counterpart Jean-Louis Borloo are to agree closer cooperation on developing civil nuclear power.

France gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, compared with Britain's 19 percent, and state-owned French power utility EDF has said, via its UK unit EDF Energy, that it wants to build up to four new nuclear plants in Britain.

"The acid test ... in the critical two-year window that lies ahead, is whether we can clear a path to becoming the No 1 place in the world for companies to do business in new nuclear," Hutton said. "That is my ambition for Britain."

"I believe that the revival of nuclear power in Britain today ... has the potential to be the most significant opportunity for our energy economy since the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas."

Interest in nuclear power, which slumped after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, has revived since scientists began warning that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels for power and transport were making the world warmer, unbalancing the planet's eco-system.

China, which opens a coal-fired power plant a week, is also embarking on a major nuclear building programme, and the United States is actively promoting nuclear power.

But technical expertise and equipment are in short supply, sparking a race to train new talent and obtain approval for new power plant designs in the hope of seizing market share.

"In recent months I've met potential investors from the U.S., Europe and Japan," Hutton told a conference in London. "There are powerful signals from them and others in the industry that the UK is now one of the world's most viable new build markets."


Britain is facing an energy crisis as all but one of its elderly nuclear power plants face closure within 15 years, and many of its old coal-fired plants will also have to close because they do not comply with modern emission regulations.

The government says nuclear power is a low-carbon source of electricity and a major weapon in the battle against global warming. Environmentalists say building nuclear plants involves massive carbon emissions and point to the risks of storing toxic nuclear waste and possible terrorist attacks.

Hutton said Britain must learn from past problems with nuclear power in order to attract the large investment it is seeking to build new nuclear plants.

It must "address the concerns raised during our consultation on safety and security, waste management, costs and the perceived impact of nuclear power on investment in other low-carbon technologies," he said.

Hutton said he would hold a major nuclear investor conference in London later this year.