BRITAIN'S nuclear power industry, due to be privatized early in the New Year, faces long-term decline and possible extinction.
British Energy's announcement Dec. 11 that it was canceling plans to build two new nuclear generating plants is being seen as a watershed development. BE is the holding company that will take over nuclear stations in England and Scotland when they are privatized in 1996. Ian Fells, an energy authority at Newcastle University, says the decision "makes it difficult to see a future for the nuclear power industry in Britain very far into the next century. Britain should be taking a longer-term view of its future electricity needs."
The relatively high cost of nuclear-generated electricity and competition from other energy sources such as North Sea oil and gas lie at the root of BE's decision. To turn a profit, nuclear plants would have to be able to charge about 35 percent more than today's market rates for power, experts say.
BRITAIN is far from being on its own in deciding to back away from nuclear energy as a source of electricity. Apart from France, Japan is the only major industrialized nation with an ongoing program of reactor construction. South Korea and Taiwan are currently building nuclear stations. Sweden's Energy Commission recently backed down on a commitment to close the nation's 13 nuclear reactors by 2010.
Robert Hawley, BE's chief executive, says the future of energy prices in Britain is "insufficiently certain to justify investment in new nuclear generation in the short term." He insists that when eventually other energy sources are depleted, the need for nuclear power will return.
But critics of nuclear power claim Mr. Hawley has sounded the death knell of the industry. Bridget Woodman of Greenpeace, welcoming BE's decision, said no one in their right minds "would put money into building a new nuclear power station when they are so risky financially and environmentally."
There are currently 16 nuclear power stations in Britain. They meet one-third of the country's electricity needs.
As well as having to shoulder the cost of building two new stations, BE would have had to face the problem of eventually paying to decommission them.
The sell-off of Britain's nuclear industry is expected to yield around 3 billion (US$4.62 billion), most of which will be spent on decommissioning old reactors.
By scrapping proposals to build new stations at Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley Point in Somerset, BE will avoid a capital outlay of 4.9 billion.
The decision to scrap the new power stations will have a big impact on Britain's sagging construction industry, which had been hoping for the creation of 10,000 new jobs.