More Fading Fukushima: UK, France up nuclear stakes

Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy to shake hands on deal that could initially lead to $32 billion of new reactors in Britain and eventually 30,000 jobs. Areva, Rolls-Royce, EDF benefit.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor

The post-Fukushima nuclear backlash will fade a bit more today, as French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron are expected to sign a cooperation pact that strengthens the UK's intent to build 8 new nuclear power stations.

UK media is full of reports this morning saying that the handshake will initially lead to the creation of at least 1500 British jobs, as French nuclear company Areva builds four nuclear reactors in Britian, and as British engineering firm Rolls-Royce provides parts and services.

Areva excecutive Robert Davis said in a BBC radio interview that the four reactors will cost a total of around £20 billion ($32 billion) to build, and that Rolls-Royce will receive orders for £400 million ($634 million). He also said that the Areva Rolls-Royce pairing will become part of a supply chain for nuclear expansion in other countries.

Wire service the Press Association, via The Guardian newspaper, quotes Prime Minister Cameron as saying eventually the deal  "could be worth £60 billion and create 30,000 jobs."

The UK government last summer approved eight sites for nuclear power plants, as it encourages nuclear to be a strong part of the low-carbon energy mix in Britain.

Today's summit advances that, although it falls short of lining up specific commitments from utilities at all eight sites -  so the vision of £60 billion and 30,000 jobs is as much a hope as a reality. The growing noise in support of nuclear is sure to increase the push back from nuclear opponents.

And at £5 billion ($7.9 billion) per reactor - costs can balloon well over that as has happened at recent new builds in France and Finland -  it's still uncertain where utilities will get the funding. Just a speculative thought, but perhaps  one reason why the UK's Department of Energy is fighting to reduce subsidies for solar installations is so that it can funnel financial help towards nuclear. That, in turn, would mean that Britain would help fund a French utility - EDF - which has committed to two new reactors at one of the 8 sites, Hinkley Point, in southwest England. Interesting politics could lie ahead, as always.

Areva is building the Hinkley Point reactors for EDF using its EPR design, which is Areva's passively cooled reactor. The nuclear industry regards passive cooling as a big safety advance, as it does not require outside power to cool down reactors in the event of an emergency. Japan suffered a meltdown last March at Fukushima when a diesel-powered cooling system failed.

As the U.S. gets back into building nuclear plants, it, too, is deploying passively cooled reactors. A consortium of utilities recently received licenses for two Westinghouse AP 1000 passively-cooled reactors in the state of Georgia.

While passive cooling marks a safety advance in conventional uranium-fueled, water cooled reactors, many nuclear experts believe the industry should shift to alternative nuclear technologies that would be yet again safer and more effective. These include reactors that run on thorium fuel, as well as unconventional designs such as molten salt, pebble bed, and new takes on fast neutron reactors. Fusion - melding atoms together rather than splitting them apart - could also be around the corner, auguring another leap in safety.

While countries including Germany and Italy have moved away from nuclear following the accident at Fukushima, others - like the UK - are determined to forge ahead. China is leading the way.

Prediction: Germany will get back into nuclear within the next 3 years.

Photo of Cameron and Sarkozy from conservativeparty via Flickr.

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