UK Govt’s energy policy at risk as French cut nuclear investment

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By a Newsnet reporter

The UK Government’s energy policy, which relies upon the expansion of the nuclear sector in order to meet future needs while reducing carbon emissions, received another blow yesterday after the new French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced that his country would cut its dependency on nuclear energy. 

Mr Ayrault said that the proportion of electricity generated in France by nuclear power would be reduced from the current level of 75% to 50% by 2025.

In his first speech to the newly elected National Assembly, Mr Ayrault promised that the shortfall would be made up by the development of renewable energy, saying:

“We will instigate a massive program to save energy and an ambitious plan for the development of renewable energies.  The share of nuclear in electricity production will fall from 75% to 50% by 2025.”

83% owned by the French state, the French energy giant EDF is the sole remaining major investor in the UK’s nuclear energy programme after the withdrawal of the German companies e.On and RWE from the UK nuclear development plans.  Costs in the UK nuclear energy sector have been rising dramatically, with the estimated bill for the first of two new reactors planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset soaring from £10 billion to £14 billion. 

The industry is struggling to regain public confidence after the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan, which forced the evacuation of over 110,000 people living within a 20 km radius of the plant.  The great majority remain living in temporary accommodation, and do not know when it will be safe to return to their homes.

Mr Ayrault’s remarks will increase the speculation, reported by Newsnet Scotland in May that the state-owned EDF will scale back its nuclear investment plans in other countries in order to increase investment in renewable energy development within France.   

In May, EDF announced that it was freezing the awarding of a £1.2bn civil engineering contract for Hinkley Point.  A spokesperson for EDF declined to comment on the decision, saying:  “It is not our practice to comment on open tenders.”   

The move led industry experts to speculate that the French company was waiting to see the outcome of the recent French presidential and parliamentary elections, which were convincingly won by the Socialist party of new President François Hollande.  Mr Hollande and his party take a decidely less pro-nuclear stance than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and industry analysts believe that a Socialist victory will lead EDF to rethink its commitment to the UK’s nuclear energy programme.

The German energy companies e.On and RWE announced in March this year that they had scrapped their plans to invest in UK nuclear new-build schemes in favour of increasing investment in their domestic sector.   Should the French company do the same, and be ordered by its government to divert billions back into the domestic renewable sector, the UK Government’s energy policy will be left in tatters.