The European Union gave the go-ahead Wednesday to Britain’s plans to build its first new nuclear power plant in 20 years, drawing criticism from environmentalists.
The double-reactor plant at Hinkley Point in south-west England would come online in 2023 and operate for about 60 years. At full capacity, it could meet as much as 7 per cent of the country’s energy needs.
The EU does not have a say in where its member states get their energy from. But its executive, the European Commission, intervened in this case because Britain will subsidize the project.
“The choice to promote nuclear energy is a choice by the United Kingdom,” EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said. “However, when public money is spent to support companies, the commission must verify that this is done in line with the EU’s rules.”
The EU expects the project – unprecedented in nature and scale – to cost 34 billion pounds (55 billion dollars). This includes 24 billion pounds in construction costs.
French-owned energy company EDF has been chosen to build the power plant. Two Chinese companies, CGN and CNNC, are also to take a combined stake of 30 to 40 per cent, according to EDF.
To get the commission’s approval, Britain had to make some concessions on its state aid by requiring a higher guarantee fee from the plant’s operator and ensuring that the project’s gains are shared with British taxpayers.
Almunia said this would safeguard competition in the EU. But the decision was slammed by environmental organizations and Green politicians, who accused the commission of implicitly endorsing nuclear power.
Austria is also said to be considering legal action over the matter.
“The commission cannot be allowed to clear the path for further exorbitant public spending on this dated and dangerous technology,” Green EU parliamentarian Rebecca Harms said.
“There is absolutely no legal, moral or environmental justification in turning taxes into guaranteed profits for a nuclear power company,” added Andrea Carta of international environmental group Greenpeace. “This is a world-record sellout to the nuclear industry.”
But Almunia defended the decision, which won a majority in the commission but failed to gain unanimous approval.
He said the move would “not create any kind of precedents” and that there is a “market failure” in Britain because the power plant would not get built without public aid.
“The aid measures foreseen by the UK are in line with EU state aid rules.”
But the Stop Hinkley Campaign argued that the approval was “clearly illegal” and has written to the commission demanding a review of the decision.
“This could mean that UK electricity consumers are saddled with paying out up to 17.6 billion pounds to EDF Energy and its Chinese partners over the 35 years from 2023, for a deal which has been stitched up without any sort of competitive process,” the letter charged.
The nuclear industry workers’ union Prospect praised the decision, saying it would spark a “nuclear renaissance” and avert the danger of national power blackouts as demand soars and ageing nuclear reactors come offline.
Fourteen EU countries produce nuclear power, with France most dependent on atomic energy. Some member states are moving in the opposite direction, however, with Germany for instance planning to shut down all its reactors by 2022.