Britain unveils ambitious plan to expand nuclear-energy capacity

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

LONDON -- The British government unveiled plans Monday to launch one of the world's most ambitious expansions of nuclear-power capacity, calling for the construction of 10 plants to help meet surging energy demands in the era of global warming.

After years of resistance to construction of nuclear-power plants, the British plan underscored how nations around the world are scrambling to find ways to generate more energy while slashing the emissions that cause climate change. To do that, nations including the United States are considering more reliance on nuclear power, which, while generating radioactive waste, produces almost no carbon emissions.

To keep the lights on in Britain while meeting strict goals to slash emissions, the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown identified 10 sites in England and Wales for new nuclear plants, with the first expected to come online by 2018. Many of the plants are envisioned to replace aging plants that are set to be decommissioned in coming years and are a vestige of a period of accelerated nuclear construction from the 1950s to 1980s.

"The threat of climate change means we need to make a transition from a system that relies heavily on high-carbon fossil fuels to a radically different system that includes nuclear, renewable and clean-coal power," Edward Miliband, Britain's energy and climate secretary, told Parliament on Monday.

As part of the plan, Miliband said, the government would forbid the construction of coal-fired power plants without carbon-capture technology, which allows the plants to catch the carbon emissions produced when coal is burned to generate electricity. He also reiterated goals of generating 30 percent of British electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2020; today Britain generates less than 3 percent from renewables, compared with 7 percent in the United States and 15 percent in Germany.

Because of high costs, coal carbon-capture systems are not considered commercially viable at the moment, and there has been strong resistance in Britain, as in other parts of the world, to the construction of wind farms because they would destroy views of the countryside. The nuclear plants, meanwhile, would go up in communities with existing reactors where the population remains generally supportive of nuclear-power generation.

Experts have warned that the government may have to relent on vows to avoid major subsidies for the plants, which will cost billions to build. Some utilities planning nuclear-power plants in Britain are calling for special levies to help defray costs, which could mean higher electric bills for millions of Britons.

"One of the sticking points is, how do you pay for expensive new nuclear plants?" said Malcolm Grimston, associate fellow for energy and environment at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "The government says it doesn't want to subsidize them directly, but in the end, they will likely have to offer something."

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