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Hinkley Point A, a nuclear power plant with two Magnox reactors, was shut down in 1999. Construction of new reactors in Britain has been delayed by at least three months.
Hinkley Point A, a nuclear power plant with two Magnox reactors, was shut down in 1999. Construction of new reactors in Britain has been delayed by at least three months.

The post-quake nuclear dilemma

Great uncertainty now hangs over plans by various countries, including Germany and the UK, on nuclear energy for yearsto come as a part of their plans to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to address climate change.

Four years ago, a disaster such as the one at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station would have served to back up the British politician Chris Huhne's position on atomic energy.

"Ministers must stop the sideshow of new nuclear power stations now," he said on his campaign website in 2007. "Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology and the government must stop putting time, effort and subsidies into reviving this outdated industry."

But today Mr Huhne, the UK energy secretary, finds himself trying to moderate public discussions on nuclear power, which apparently will have to remain a key part of his country's energy mix.

"We don't know what the most effective way of generating low-carbon electricity is going to be in the 20, 30-year view, and therefore the sensible approach is to hold a portfolio of different energy sources without relying on any one," he said.

"There are also very substantial differences between the position of the United Kingdom and the position of Japan, not least that the Japanese earthquake was the sixth most-powerful earthquake in the history of the world, and it was 65,000 times stronger than the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the United Kingdom."

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami that crippled three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station and led to radiation leaks has triggered a heated global debate on the future of nuclear energy.

In Germany, the government of Angela Merkel, the chancellor, has bowed to public pressure and plans to close 17 nuclear plants.

In the US, engineers have privately expressed concerns about how the country's older reactors would stand up against a major earthquake.

Inside the industry, analysts are predicting higher insurance costs for nuclear power stations.

Even in the UK, Mr Huhne has called for the chief nuclear inspector to review the country's 10 nuclear power stations in light of the Japanese disaster. That will hold up the construction of new reactors by at least three months, a delay Mr Huhne now has to defend against critics who fear the decision will derail the UK's climate-change timetable.

"I wanted the debate in the United Kingdom to be based on the facts and on the evidence rather than on some knee-jerk reaction," Mr Huhne said of the review. "In the great span of 2 degrees centigrade, a three-month delay, if that's what it turns out to be, is not going to make a lot of a difference."

Mr Huhne, a member of the anti-nuclear Liberal Democrat party, took over as the UK energy secretary last year as part of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government after hammering out compromises on nuclear power.

The UK's plan to combat climate change included cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.

Yet four years ago, Mr Huhne said on his website that such a goal could be met without nuclear power, provided there was adequate investment in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Since becoming energy secretary, he has had to add nuclear power to the list of the country's options for renewable energy.

"I'm technologically neutral between families of options that there are for electricity generation," he said in Abu Dhabi recently. "We'll have to wait and see what looks like the most sensible."

Along with energy ministers from the US, Australia and other nations, Mr Huhne pledged to support carbon capture and storage projects.

At least 100 such projects in the next decade and another 3,000 by 2050 will be needed to halve carbon dioxide emissions related to energy generation by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, which represents 28 of the major energy-consuming countries.

The UK has allocated 1 billion (Dh5.99bn) to its first large-scale carbon capture and storage project and has committed itself to funding three others.

But the technology, which has yet to be proved on a commercial scale and requires the storage of gases underground, ignites some of the same "not-in-my-backyard" concerns as nuclear energy.

In November, Shell cancelled a plan to bury carbon dioxide from a refinery in the Netherlands after failing to gain the support of the community living near the proposed storage sites. That was just one of 22 projects delayed or cancelled last year, one fifth of all CCS projects, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute.

Still, the UK is pushing ahead with its carbon capture blueprint.

"We found a billion pounds in the current comprehensive spending review to make sure we have the first commercial-scale electricity generating plant for carbon capture and storage," Mr Huhne said.

"We've committed to three more demonstrations which are showing the technology works on a commercial scale," he added. "We have to get demonstration projects through first, and once we've done that, then we'll see.


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