France shows the nuclear way

Friday, January 11, 2008

By Peggy Hollinger in Paris

When Anne Lauvergeon took over France's nuclear group Cogema in 1999, one of her first acts was to install cameras in the fuel and waste treatment chambers of La Hague, France's highly sensitive reprocessing site on the north coast.

In effect the woman - dubbed "Atomic Anne" - who now heads Areva, the world's biggest nuclear group, opened the doors on previously secretive activities in a bid to dispel the public suspicion that had long impeded the development of nuclear power around the world.

It is an example that Britain is likely to be studying closely as it launches itself into a new nuclear age following yesterday's go-ahead for the construction of a new fleet of reactors. It is almost certain that Britain will choose Areva's new third generation reactor - the heavy duty 1,600MW EPR (European pressurised reactor) - for some of its new fleet of plants.

It is France's nuclear expertise that Britain and many other European countries will be particularly keen to tap as they replace their conventional fossil fuel power plants with carbon free reactors.

France is Europe's biggest nuclear operator, obtaining almost 80 per cent of its electricity from its 58 reactors. More than any other country, France has placed its energy hopes in a technology that for decades was considered too unpopular for any government to back with conviction.

In Italy and Germany nuclear power has long been banned and governments are struggling to convince a hostile public that a U-turn is needed to meet growing demand and environmental constraints.

France's almost national consensus is what has made nuclear power both economical and efficient according to energy experts. "All the ministers and industry are on message," says Gerald Doucet, director general of the World Energy Council. "Even the unions see the interest and value for their communities and companies of nuclear power."

Areva credits this unity of purpose as a big advantage during those years when nuclear was out favour and starved of investment. "In France there is a global effort not to complicate things, to facilitate investment without compromising on safety," an Areva spokesman says.

That does not mean public opposition is non-existent. Surveys have shown that as much as 55 per cent of the population is critical of how nuclear waste is managed. In response France last year launched a comprehensive waste management package, opting for long-term underground storage at a site yet to be determined.

And as in any country, consultation processes are long and drawn out. The decision to build the EPR was taken in 2004, three years before the first bulldozer turned up on site.

None of this would have been possible if the government had not decided to build a large fleet of power stations, says one industry executive. "The more reactors you build the more competitive it is," he says. "That was the difference between France and the UK."

Pressing the button on nuclear power

The UK's decision to back construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants makes it an important testing ground. Investors wanting to build and operate plants will benefit from the streamlined planning process and licensing regime announced yesterday. But key ingredients are still missing. The most vital of these, a stable price for electricity generated by nuclear energy, is far from guaranteed.

The case for nuclear is attractive. Without it, the UK stands little chance of meeting tough targets to cut emissions of carbon dioxide. Like other European countries, it also risks becoming too dependent on natural gas imports for its energy needs. Renewable sources of power such as wind, solar and wave energy emit no carbon. Unlike nuclear, they are either not sufficiently reliable or cost-effective enough to meet baseload electricity demand. Moreover, not replacing ageing nuclear plants would add to emissions.

It is the economics of nuclear, as well as the safety risks, that make it a gamble. Plants require huge upfront capital spending. The costs of decommissioning and disposal of waste are uncertain too. The US, France and Finland are using subsidies, tax breaks and price guarantees to support development. The UK wants to leave it to the market.

With oil close to $100 a barrel, nuclear is economically viable. But energy prices may fall. If the UK approach is to work and become the preferred model elsewhere, a high and stable price for carbon dioxide will be essential.

The government, therefore, must make clear that it will impose tough limits on carbon emissions, regardless of what targets are agreed at a European Union level. This does not amount to a price guarantee or compensation if the carbon price were to fall. But it would send investors a persuasive signal.

Unpredictable clean-up and waste disposal costs are a problem too. Critics are rightly sceptical, despite government reassurances, that operators will set aside adequate funds to pay for the decommissioning of plants. Taxpayers could yet be saddled with this cost. Plans for an independently managed fund will need to be robust to cope with any shortfall and withstand a power generator's collapse.

The other uncertainty is political. The Conservatives have belatedly endorsed nuclear. But the government should make the case more aggressively. Public support is vital, especially since an underground waste dump must be found and the construction of plants will span several parliaments. Nuclear's backers need to display stronger conviction.

Posted in |