Back to warmwell.com website


 http://www.iht.com/articles/542788.html       International Herald Tribune

 

British energy gap opens as oil, gas and time run out
 
 
Alan Cowell  Alan Cowell  New York Times

ASKAM, England From her home above this village near the sea, Norma White, a retired schoolteacher, contemplates a vista stretching from her ornamental pond to the distant blades of a huge wind turbine that represents part of Britain's equally huge problem with its future energy supplies.
.
With its North Sea oil and gas beginning to dwindle, its nuclear power generation due to be scaled back and its commitment to reducing greenhouse gases propelling a hunt for renewable energy sources - like tides, waves or wind - Britain is facing hard decisions that those in authority seem reluctant to make.
.
In particular, the most passionate argument is swirling around the contentious prospect of expanding nuclear power generation, which produces about one quarter of Britain's electricity.
.
"Gimmicks such as wind turbines are hardly relevant," the newspaper columnist Simon Jenkins wrote recently in The Times of London. "If Britain's leaders really believe in the Apocalypse, only one technology is currently available to hold it at bay and that is nuclear power. All else is hypocrisy."
.
The government has been less forthright. In a major speech on climate change last month, Prime Minister Tony Blair said nuclear power remained an option to reduce carbon emissions - a goal Britain has adopted with enthusiasm under the Kyoto agreement to cut greenhouse gases. That seemed to suggest nuclear power was back on the agenda.
.
Just a few days later, though, Patricia Hewitt, the minister of trade and industry, said there were "no proposals now for building new nuclear power stations, but at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets." Her remarks prompted the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, to warn that time is running out.
.
The discussion is part of a wider and patchier debate across Europe since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 provoked such opposition to nuclear power that no new reactors have been built since then.
.
Some countries, like Italy, now call themselves nuclear-free zones. While France and Germany remain heavily dependent on nuclear power, Austria and Denmark have forsworn any use of it.
.
Elsewhere there are indications of a re-thinking: Finland has ordered a $3.5 billion nuclear reactor and opposition politicians in Germany have spoken about extending the deadline for closing nuclear plants past 2021. Sweden has generally delayed a promise made in 1980 to phase out nuclear power by 2010, but has now said it will close a plant.
.
At White's home in this blustery northwestern corner of England, the energy debate is framed by the competing presence of wind-farms on the hillsides and shores - and a huge nuclear facility just up the road.
.
"We are an island battered by the wind," she said, to explain Britain's aptitude for renewable energy sources like winds, tides and waves. "We are an island surrounded by the sea."
.
But a few miles north of here, also on the coast, stands the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield that has long raised concerns about the costs and hazards of nuclear waste. And just down the road is Barrow-in-Furness, the home port of two specialist ships that recently carried American plutonium to France, accompanied by protests about the perils of transporting nuclear materials in an era of global terrorism.
.
"The question with nuclear power is this disposal business," White said. "And there's always a huge question mark over it."
.
In some ways the one-time abundance of North Sea oil and gas in particular allowed Britain to delay its choice on future energy supplies, leaving others to commit themselves to different sources of energy.
.
While Britain claims to be Europe's windiest nation, its wind farms produce only a tiny fraction of its electricity, and Denmark has taken a lead in turbine technology. And, while Britain is committed to lessening its reliance on nuclear power generation, France derives 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
.
But according to the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, a body representing the offshore oil and gas industry, oil and gas production in British waters, which peaked at the equivalent of 4.5 million barrels a day in 1999, is likely to be 3.7 million barrels a day this year, falling to 2.5 million barrels a day in 2010. After two decades of self-sufficiency, according to official statistics, Britain now imports more oil than it exports.
.
That has underscored the urgency of the current debate, leading some analysts to speculate that future supplies could be held ransom to developments beyond Britain's control.
.
"We will be ever-more-reliant in the future on importing gas and oil from politically sensitive areas such as the Middle East and Russia," said Ruth Lea, director of the Center for Policy Studies, a private research body, in a recent newspaper article.
.
Environmentalists have long argued in favor of wind, wave and tide power, and the British Wind Energy Association, a private advocacy group, says the wind turbines sprouting offshore and on hillsides - despite the protests of opponents - will provide 8 percent of Britain's electricity supply by 2010.
.
But some people argue that those alternative sources of power are not economically viable while the nuclear industry provides not only electricity but also jobs.
.
"Sellafield has been a lifeline to this part of Cumbria," White said. "It has brought huge prosperity."
.
Indeed, said Ali McKibbin, a spokeswoman for BNFL, the state-owned company that runs Sellafield, more than 10,000 people rely for jobs on the nuclear industry around the plant.
.
Against that, wind turbines "bring very little in the way of direct economic benefit," said Stuart Klosinski, a spokesman for Furness Enterprise, a local advocacy group seeking economic regeneration in an area that, over the years, has witnessed the decline of its shipbuilding and other industries.
.
The apparent swing toward nuclear power - at least in public discussion - has been hastened by remarks from some prominent environmentalists casting doubt on Britain's ability to meet its own targets for replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy.
.
"Many politicians hope that green, renewable energy will save the day. This is wishful thinking," said Ian Fell, chairman of the New and Renewable Energy Center, a private research organization.
.
Against that, John Whitelegg, a Green Party specialist on sustainable development, said in a letter published in The Times of London, "The nuclear option is fraught with environmental, human health, financial and terrorism risks."
.
"The government is saying we will come back and look at nuclear power," King, the government's scientific adviser, told a recent conference. "But the timescale to do that is relatively short. I do think five years or less is when we've got to make a decision."
.
The New York Times