Britain's nuclear power industry faces extinction following the decision yesterday by British Energy, the soon-to-be-privatised nuclear company, to abandon plans to build any new generating plants.
While the decision sounded the death knell for nuclear power in Britain, environmentalists warned that the future for the industry "lies in cleaning up the legacy of radioactive waste created by its 50-year failed experiment".
But an independent expert warned that the decision could jeopardise safety in the industry. "In any industry that is shrinking, it's hard to keep morale high," said Professor Ian Fells of Newcastle University. "I worry about retaining the culture of safety in those circumstances."
The decision will also have a dramatic impact on the construction industry, which had looked forward to the creation of more than 10,000 jobs, lasting up to five years, in building the two plants that had been given planning permission. Dr Robert Hawley, British Energy's chief executive, said that the decision not to go ahead with Sizewell C in Suffolk or Hinkley C in Somerset was taken on the grounds that they would not be commercially viable.
He blamed the excess generating capacity in the UK and a cap on prices in the electricity trading system imposed by the regulator, Professor Ste-phen Littlechild.
Britain's first commercial nuclear power plant opened at Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, in July 1962 - a 167 megawatt Magnox plant that closed in March of 1989. The most recently opened, the 1,258 megawatt pressurised water reactor (PWR) at Sizewell B, started operations in February this year and is expected to operate until 2045.
Bridget Woodman, of the environmental group Greenpeace, welcomed the decision. "British Energy has finally accepted what everyone else has realised for the past six or seven years. No one in their right minds would put money into building a new nuclear power station when they are so risky financially and environmentally."
However, Dr Hawley said he was convinced that in the future there would be a case for new nuclear plants as the price of gas - now widely used in power stations - rose and as people were persuaded they could help fight the greenhouse effect.
At present, there are 16 nuclear power stations in Britain, employing 9,700 people. They provide almost 30 per cent of Britain's electricity, supplemented by the output of two more nuclear power stations in France, via an undersea cable.
Unions said that the decision "has realised the worst fears of the trade unions representing workers in the nuclear generating industry". Tony Cooper, secretary of the Electricity Supply Trade Union Council, said British jobs were now at risk.
He added: "Throwing in the towel on a new nuclear build even before privatisation has taken place clearly signals ... the intention to concentrate on alternative methods of electricity generation in the interests of short term profit."
The pounds 3bn Sizewell C station, based on the same pressurised water reactor technology as the recently completed Sizewell B, would have taken seven years to build and created up to 6,000 construction jobs in the area. It could also have created many thousands of jobs throughout the country.
The new station at Hinkley, for which planning permission has already been given and was expected to cost pounds 1.9bn, could have created an estimated 4,000 construction jobs in six years.
One City analyst said that the decision to abandon nuclear building could reduce the Government's revenues from privatisation, expected to raise between pounds 2.5bn and pounds 3bn.
Dr Hawley rejected speculation that the company planned to diversify into gas, saying that over-capacity and low prices made any new plants unviable at the moment. But British Energy was "thinking about" buying a regional electricity firm.
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