The British Labour government Thursday gave the green light for the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants which it claimed would safeguard energy supplies while meeting the challenges of climate change.The controversial plan, presented to parliament in a White Paper Thursday, marks the renaissance of of atomic energy in a country which produced one of the first major anti-nuclear movements in postwar Europe.
Private investors will be invited to build the new plants, which are set to replace Britain's 19 old-fashioned nuclear power stations expected to be phased out by 2035.
Business Secretary John Hutton told parliament that the government was aiming to secure supplies through a "balanced energy mix" that would include a trebling of renewable energy resources by 2015.
The case for "clean and affordable" nuclear energy was "compelling," said Hutton, citing both the rising costs of fossil fuels and the need to meet carbon emission targets.
But critics attacked the plan, which they said was agreed by a cabinet some of whose members were once prominent supporters of the anti-nuclear movement.
Former Labour environment minister Michael Meacher dismissed the claim that nuclear power could assist in the fight against climate change as "the whitest of white elephants."
Environment group Greenpeace pointed out that nuclear power could, at best, deliver a 4-per cent cut in emissions some time after 2025. "That is too little too late at too high a price," Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said.
Instead of showing leadership on climate change, Britain was "trying to revive an outdated technology that has already failed to deliver," Greenpeace said in a statement.
"Nuclear power is a distraction which will do nothing but rob vital investment from the real solutions that are simpler, cheaper and safer.
The group, and other environmental campaigners, have threatened legal action against the government plans.
The first of the new generation reactors could go on stream "well before" 2020, said Hutton, who argued that the maintenance of "energy independence" was of "vital national interest."
Currently, Britain derives 19 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear power.
"The government believes it is in the public interest that new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country's future energy mix alongside other low-carbon sources," Hutton said.
Concurrently, the government published an energy bill signalling greater deployment of renewable energy and increased investment in carbon capture and storage as well as offshore gas infrastructure.
He said that energy companies would be compelled to meet the full costs of decommissioning and their "full share of waste management costs."
However, the government admitted that a long-term solution for waste disposal had yet to be found. The "geological disposal" of nuclear waste was both "technically possible and the right approach," said Hutton.
The government has pledged to present a separate White Paper on nuclear waste storage later this year.
Figures show that there is already a "mountain of nuclear waste" being held at the controversial nuclear reprocessing facility at Sellafield, in north-west Britain, on the Irish Sea.
A stockpile of 1,345 cubic metres of high-level waste and 350,000 cubic metres of intermediate level toxic waste has accumulated at the site.
However, the government's nuclear plans won backing Thursday from trade union leaders, who welcomed the opportunity for the creation of manufacturing and construction jobs.
Meanwhile, international energy giants, including Germany's E.On, EDF from France and Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) are queuing up to bid for contracts for the new power stations.
"We have submitted our new build design for approval in Britain and believe that our plans would provide a huge potential boost to British manufacturing," said Keith Bradley, regional vice president for AECL in Britain.
Vincent de Rivaz of EDF Energy, the British subsidiary of the French electricity giant, told the Financial Times Thursday: "This is an opportunity for Britain to be at the vanguard of the nuclear renaissance."
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