Nuclear

View inside the Hunterston B nuclear power station

Inside the Hunterston B nuclear power station in Scotland  © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

2015 will be a crucial year for the nuclear industry across the world. Japan is expected to start bringing its nuclear reactors back on stream — four years after the Fukushima disaster. Elsewhere, a dozen different countries are considering whether or not to commit to new plants, with the decisions further complicated by the fall in the price of competing fuels such as coal and natural gas. Much depends on what happens in the UK, where the progress of proposed new developments will signal whether nuclear can be competitive as a long term source of energy. Read more

The sun sets behind Hinkley Point B, and (R) Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations besides the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater on November 12, 2013 in Somerset, England (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The EU approval of the nuclear development at Hinkley Point marks an important, if not decisive, chapter in the story of new nuclear in the UK. There are still legal challenges to be overcome and a financing package to be finalised within the constraints set by the EU ruling but this is a good moment to identify winners and losers.

The obvious losers are the UK’s consumers who are trapped into paying a price for electricity that is double the current wholesale price for 35 years after the plant starts up. The deal will go down in history, alongside the privatisation of the Royal Mail, as an example of the inability of the British government – ministers and civil servants alike – to negotiate complex commercial deals. The phrase “rolled over” will enter the French language and be accompanied always with a Gallic smile. Still, one should recognise talent and so chapeau to the French negotiators. Read more

France has a new energy policy. Although some saw the statement presented for debate in the National Assembly ten days ago as simply political rhetoric designed to draw green support behind the Government, beyond the fine words and long term aspirations some of the tough immediate steps being taken suggest that the shift could be more serious. If so the statement will mark the beginning of a gradual but inexorable run down of the French nuclear business. Read more

Premier Li Keqiang of China is due in the UK this week. Despite all the challenges and potential disagreements there is scope for much closer cooperation around joint work on big issues. Energy should be at the heart of the discussion. Read more

Energy storage has long been regarded as something close to a holy grail. Of course, there are ways of storing some forms of energy – using pumped water or compressed air for instance. There are conventional batteries – and there have been advances in their capacity over the last few years. But the search for storage systems which are simultaneously economic and practical for use at scale in the modern energy market has long been a source of frustration.

Recent advances made by scientists in the US suggest, however, that real progress is now being made and that major breakthroughs are close. The whole of the energy sector should be watching because any such breakthrough could transform the economics of the whole industry. Read more

Life in the Middle East never stands still. The inexorable progress of Iran towards some form of nuclear capability has not been halted by the negotiations which began at the end of last year and which have now run on for almost six months. In the absence of a deal others are assuming the worst. Unilateral direct action by Israel still cannot be definitively ruled out. Meanwhile, other countries are feeling the need to prepare their own deterrents. Having lost confidence in the umbrella of US security the Saudis are developing their own capabilities. The dangers for the region and for the world’s energy markets are enormous. Read more

George Osborne in his Budget speech on Wednesday talked, correctly, about US industrial energy costs being half those of the UK. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past five years. His proposed response is worth quoting directly:

“We need to cut our energy costs. We’re going to do this by investing in new sources of energy: new nuclear power, renewables, and a shale gas revolution.”

This must be a speechwriter’s joke. A line written in where the content bears absolutely no relationship to reality. New nuclear at £92.50 a megawatt hour will double the current wholesale price of electricity. New offshore wind on the Department of Energy & Climate Change’s own figures, which many feel are too low, will cost more than £120/Mwhr. These are not secret figures. They are well known in the Treasury, as is the risk of generating capacity failing to meet demand. There was no mention of that little problem. Read more

Older UK readers will remember the Green Goddesses – fire engines held in reserve for moments of national emergency. At the height of a crisis army drivers would maintain an essential service. Well, lo and behold, some new Green Goddesses are to be created as the government launches its “emergency electricity reserve”. Read more

What happens now for the numerous companies, led by the oil majors, who have chosen to invest in Russia? The surprising answer may be that the short-term risks are less serious than the longer term prospects of disengagement as energy consumers, especially in Europe, reduce their dependence on a supplier they do not trust. Read more

I am glad I don’t live in eastern Europe and I can quite understand why against a good deal of economic logic Algirdas Butkevičius, the Lithuanian prime minister, is pushing very hard to force his country into the eurozone. The reason is the reassertion of Russian power across the region. The advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore. Comecon is being recreated. Read more

Is energy policy made in Brussels ? The obvious answer would be no. The EU may have an energy commissioner but he has little real authority. Energy policy is still under the control of individual national governments and as a result there are 28 very different approaches and outcomes. France is supplied by nuclear power. Germany by contrast is phasing out nuclear in favour of renewables. Much of Eastern Europe still depends on coal. There is cross border trade, of course, but most countries have their own distinct energy market.

A series of announcements over the last few weeks, however, suggests that the European Commission which is in its last year in office wants to assert its authority over energy issues by indirect means, using environmental and competition policy to create a de facto Common Energy Policy. A Commission policy statement on energy will be published before the end of January. The issue promises to become more visible and part of the continuing debate about the balance of power between Brussels and the member states. Read more

Just as the FT’s reports from Tehran show that there is a long way to go on one nuclear deal, so it also seems that negotiations on the £16bn plan to build new nuclear for the UK at Hinkley Point in Somerset are far from over.

When agreement between the UK Government and EDF on the strike price was announced six weeks ago the impression was given that the deal was done. This is not correct. Numerous details remain unresolved, opposition to the costs involved and the structure of the deal has mounted and, crucially, the financing has not been agreed. Full-scale construction work cannot begin until the funding is in place. The key lies with the Chinese. Read more

The US energy sector must be bitterly annoyed with President Obama. The deal with Iran agreed in Geneva over the weekend does not lift sanctions but it sends an unmistakeable signal that the door to doing business is opening again. Many many companies around the world will be flying in, most with the full support of their Governments. The only ones who won’t and can’t are American companies forced to respect to the letter every sentence of the sanctions legislation until it is repealed. Read more

Energy policy is a serious problem which won’t be solved by gimmicks or slogans. Most of the debate in the UK over the last few weeks has focused on the prices being paid by domestic consumers. Now, though, the focus is set to shift to the competitive burden on businesses and jobs not just in the UK but across Europe. With yet more price increases to come, the need for a new and serious policy covering both supply and demand is becoming urgent. Read more

The details of the deal to build Britain’s new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point are becoming clearer: a basic cost of £16bn, a quiet increase of £2bn since the last parliamentary statement on the issue less than six months ago. It guarantees a unit price of £92.50 per megawatt hour for the electricity produced, stretching four decades into the future, and the UK government in effect underwrites the investment. Read more

As the smoke of briefings from the government PR machine clears, the shape of the deal to secure the development of the new nuclear station at Hinkley Point in Somerset is becoming clearer. As mere consumers we are not allowed to know the full facts – that privilege is given, it seems, only to the companies involved and the French and Chinese governments. But we can piece the story together. Read more

Any new graduate wanting to learn about how companies should handle tough public policy questions should study how the energy companies have responded to Ed Miliband’s proposal to freeze utility prices in his party conference speech three weeks ago. Their actions and comments have been a masterclass in how to make a difficult situation worse.

We have had a mixture of denial (“they’ll never get elected”, “he didn’t really mean it”, “the lawyers will stop him”), mindless abuse (“I don’t think people want to live under Stalinism”) and fear tactics which usually mention the prospect of the lights going out. No one in the industry has bothered to think about why Mr Miliband’s comments have proven so popularRead more

The German election later this month might seem to be about to produce more of the same. On the eurozone currency crisis – as Quentin Peel wrote in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago – the expectation of a big reform plan once Angela Merkel wins re-election has given way to the realisation that nothing much will change unless the markets force a radical response. Austerity and crisis management are the watchwords, and only a major event such as a collapse in the credibility of Italian debt repayment will force Germany to address the need for a full-scale resolution of the problem. That could involve the creation of a tighter EU core, or a reluctant acceptance that the euro as designed cannot work without a backstop funding mechanism in the form of Eurobonds. Nothing in the election campaign has provided a clue as to which of these alternatives will prevail.

Similarly on energy policy the election is beginning to look like a breakpoint which could have wide implications across Europe. But the direction of change remains uncertain and dangerously dependent on the precise make up of the next coalition government. Read more

The Chinese, as reported by my colleague Guy Chazan, are in talks with EDF on sharing the costs of building the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Their price is an unspecified “degree of control”. The Russian company Rosatom announced a couple of weeks ago that it was considering joining the game with the aim of building future nuclear stations in the UK. Perhaps we should be grateful that such nice people have taken an interest in the UK’s energy needs. But before we roll over in gratitude perhaps we should consider the links between energy and security. Read more

You have to feel very sorry for the vast majority of the companies who make up the world’s nuclear power industry. Westinghouse, CANDU, EDF and many others have all run overwhelmingly safe operations free of accidents for many many years. The companies have extended the lives of existing plant and spent tens of millions on plans for new capacity – in the US, the UK, Russia and some parts of the developing world. In many of these countries, the old fears of nuclear power had been tempered or removed. Even parts of the green lobby had embraced nuclear as part of the solution to climate change.

But now all that progress is once again vulnerable to the weakest link. Tepco. Read more