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The Government has found a backhanded way to subsidise nuclear power

Dan Box

24th May, 2010

21st century nuclear power needs a 21st century subsidy... no blank cheques this time - just an apparently green tweak to the emissions trading system, and voila!

What is it they say? Power corrupts? Well, certainly people change.

Take energy secretary Chris Huhne, who from opposition railed against building new nuclear power stations thus:

'No private sector investor has built a nuclear power station anywhere in the world without lashings of government subsidy since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The World Bank refuses to lend on nuclear projects because of the long history of overruns. Our message is clear: no to nuclear, as it is not a short cut, but a dead end.'

That was in 2006 (the quote is on his website). Today, in Government, he has - shall we say? - mellowed. Vincent de Rivaz, chief exec of the UK arm of energy giant EDF, which plans to build Britain’s first new nuclear reactor for over 20 years, recently described Huhne as 'a man we can do business with'.

How so, exactly? Huhne is still refusing to commit any Government money to subsidise the construction of these notoriously expensive plants. The answer lies in one, under-reported, commitment from our new Government; to set a floor-price for carbon.

At this point, I should put my hand up. When I found out about the floor-price, it felt like all my Christmases had come at once. I have long been a fan of the idea. Other people are fans of Obama, Didier Drogba and the Sugababes; I am a devotee of the idea that the price of a metric tonne of carbon traded on the European Climate Exchange will not be allowed to fall below a certain amount (though I do quite like the Sugababes).

The way it works is this: European companies currently pay for each tonne of carbon they emit by buying permits, the price of which is determined by the market itself. A floor price will most likely drive this price up (it has been very low for a long time), making pollution more expensive. It will also encourage investors to put money into non-polluting companies by making the market in which they operate more predictable.

But, having opened my stocking, I looked more closely at what was inside. Driving up the cost of producing polluting energy from coal- or gas-fired power plants, doesn’t just favour renewables. It also makes the costs of nuclear production far more competitive, even without subsidy. Plus, of course, those companies looking to build new nukes are the same ones currently providing our electricity, and who can pass on to their customers the extra cost of the floor-price through energy bills, paid for by you and me. Huhne, it seems, may have ruled out using the public purse to fund the new nuclear generation, but his Government is asking us to use our wallets to do the same.

Steel yourself...

Don’t believe it when the First Minister for Wales describes the £60 million spent on the Corus steelworks in Port Talbot as being 'all about protecting the environment'. Carwyn Jones may have convinced himself convinced that this is why the plant, Wales’ biggest carbon polluter, built a system to recover waste gas and recycle it as fuel, but others beg to differ. Like Kirby Adams, chief exec of Tata Steel Europe, the steelmaker’s parent company, who said that 'in order to be more competitive in the global steel market, this project had to be delivered'.

And that’s the bottom line – when Tata took over, the new owners were unhappy that waste gas was burned off at a time when gas prices were rising. Other Tata plants had fitted similar systems, and saved money. Port Talbot had to follow. Not that this is a bad thing at all - the 240,000 tonnes of carbon that will be saved each year show the needs of business and the environment can fall into line.

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