Sizewell

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Sizewell B

Until this week, we thought that Sizewell B was likely to be the most expensive nuclear power station built in the UK. Image source: World Nuclear Association.

The Guardian newspaper of Monday 19 October broke the story that the UK government is preparing to guarantee a minimum price for carbon dioxide emissions to encourage the development of nuclear power stations. Putting a high cost on greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will force up the wholesale price of electricity, ensuring a better financial return for nuclear power stations (and for renewables such as wind). The decision to create a floor price for carbon demonstrates that the full costs of nuclear technology are probably well above today’s wholesale electricity prices. We may well need nuclear power but we are going to pay heavily for it. The government’s optimistic noises from 2006 to the middle of this year about the commercial viability of nuclear power have turned out to be wrong.

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Power Station 571 aka the solar panels on my roof.

Power Station 571 aka the solar panels on my roof.

People like me who buy solar panels tend to become unreasonably fond of them. Many homeowners come to regard these silent blocks of silicon on our roofs as part of the family. I’m also particularly proud that our panels are registered at Ofgem, the utilities regulator, as Power Station 571. The reason for going through the cumbersome process to convince Ofgem that my silicon should be listed alongside Drax and Sizewell B was to benefit from the government incentive scheme for renewable electricity generation.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Sizewell B nuclear power station
Sizewell B nuclear power station

In the past three months, John Hutton, the UK government minister in charge of industry, has publicly backed an expansion of both nuclear and of offshore wind. Is this good for the UK’s climate targets? Possibly not.

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The new Finnish nuclear reactor at Olkiluoto (OLK3)
The new Finnish nuclear reactor at Olkiluoto (OLK3)

Nuclear power may or may not be an unfortunate necessity. But a look at Finland should temper any optimism about construction costs.

The government’s decision in early January 2007 to support (or, more precisely, not oppose) the construction of nuclear power plants in the UK prompted strongly felt responses from all sides. To the electricity generating industry, nuclear power represents an attractive way of reducing emissions. To most – but by no means all – environmentalists, the push for more nuclear power is both a mistake and a missed opportunity: a mistake because no country has yet shown that nuclear waste can be stored effectively, and a missed opportunity because nuclear baseload generation reduces the incentive to develop wind and tidal power.

This article looks at what we can learn from the building of the nuclear power station at Olkiluoto (OLK3) on the western coast of Finland. The ground works started here in early 2004 and the plant is now due to open in 2011. Does this project give us confidence that nuclear power stations can be constructed at a reasonable cost and to a reliable timescale?

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