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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 March 2008, 16:44 GMT
'Entente nucleaire': What, why?
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Sellafield. Image: Getty
Sellafield - valued employer, polluter, science pioneer, dinosaur?

The elegant lawns of Arsenal's Emirates stadium often host football of apparently divine origin.

The hype leading up to Thursday's meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown at this surprising location suggested it was about to witness a nuclear match made in heaven.

The theory went something like this.

The world needs nuclear power; it is a low-carbon energy source, fuel is relatively abundant, and technology has advanced so far that the old days of copious waste production, knife-edge safety and secretly massive costs have gone.

Nuclear has a problem, because basically no OECD country has been building nuclear stations for 20 years
Antony Froggatt
Britain - scene of dwindling oil and gas supplies and carbon emissions obstinate to the government's climate policy - needs a slice of that particular cake.

As does the EU as a whole, if it is serious about slashing its emissions by one fifth within 12 years.

That is the case for nuclear; and it is a case the government appears to believe with increasing fervour.

Two months ago, releasing its White Paper, the target was to build enough reactors to replace the ageing fleet that has provided 20% of our electricity over the past few decades.

Now, we should apparently aim to double that number, enough to supply 40%, according to Energy Secretary John Hutton on Wednesday.

And who is better placed than France, with its largely state-owned reactor builder Areva and utility company EDF, to satisfy Mr Hutton's appetite?

Jose Manuel Barroso seen through TV camera. Image: AP

The first of its European Pressurised Water reactors (EPRs) is already taking shape at Olkiluoto in Finland, and the first concrete has just been poured where its second EPR will sit, at Flamanville in France.

Relationships are two-way affairs, of course; so what would France get out of a closer entente nucleaire?

"The UK is the only country in Europe that could soon be setting up a new nuclear programme with lots of reactors," notes Luis Echavarri, director-general of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency.

"The UK needs to replace 20% of its electricity, it has to deal with climate change; the most important thing the UK could do to help France would be to place orders."

And if, through working with the French, British companies could pick up a slice of the global nuclear action, so much the better for the country's long-term economic health.

Beautiful game

In the event, the deal unveiled by Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy after their trip around the Arsenal terraces was a little more mundane on the issue.

The word "nuclear" crops up only seven times - and four of those references concern weapons proliferation rather than power production.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In an era when markets rather than governments build nuclear reactors, a high-level political agreement would be of questionable relevance.

After all, EDF has already said it wants to build reactors in the UK, the EPR is already going through the UK regulatory approval, and multinational companies can already set up operations in whatever country they like without the need for a ministerial nod.

UK nuclear power plant worker

The new deal primarily allows for co-oeration on the regulatory process, with the French and UK agencies swapping information "on nuclear safety, security and waste management, action which could be extended to other interested European partners."

Professor Richard Clegg, who heads the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester and sits on a Franco-UK nuclear advisory forum, believes that swapping information and skills could bring mutual benefits.

"There is real scope for technology links between the UK and France," he says.

"French technology (the EPR) is a really strong candidate, perhaps the leading candidate, to be built in the UK; and if that's the case then links between the countries can build skills, build safety, make sure we have the right numbers of trained skilled people."

Skilled people to service a nuclear expansion are in short supply. France currently has more nuclear engineers than the UK in employment because its reactor fleet is much larger; but the long UK history of nuclear science means there is still real expertise to be traded.

Pressure point

If the UK does seek to increase its capacity, skilled people will be at a premium in an industry which is showing signs of global expansion. So will other resources.

"The price of steel is going up, the price of heavy equipment is going up - and that's a problem across the board, whether people are building nuclear or coal-fired plants," says Antony Froggatt, an energy analyst with Chatham House.

"But nuclear has a particular problem, because basically no OECD country has been building nuclear stations for 20 years."

Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown. Image: PA
Energy security is a major concern for western European leaders
The most difficult issue seems to be the giant steel pressure vessels used in modern designs such as the EPR.

There are only two factories in the world where such vessels can be constructed.

They are said to be taking orders now for delivery in seven or eight years' time, which would certainly challenge the government's (and EDF's) aim of having a new reactor fleet coming on stream within a decade.

This is one of the reasons why environmental groups continue to argue that the UK is wrong to believe that nuclear power can solve its energy problems; but it is not the only one.

They say a new nuclear fleet would arrive too late and contribute too little to provide a meaningful constraint on climate change.

They say it would be a dangerous distraction from renewables and leave a legacy of toxic waste; and they have noted worrying echoes of the past, as the first of the new generation of reactors emerges.

"We only have a few nuclear reactors being built in Europe," says Dr Froggatt.

"[The furthest advanced], Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, has been in construction for two and half years, and it's already two years behind schedule and 30% over budget."

Boom or bust

Nevertheless, the UK does appear to be committed, for better or for worse, to a future fuelled largely by fission.

So is France, so is Finland - though some other western European countries have pledged to end their nuclear eras.

After three decades without receiving any applications to build new reactors, US officials anticipate finding 30 or so bids on their desks in the next three years.

India, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are among the other countries committed to new build.

It might seem that an intense period of reactor construction is coming, not just in Britain, but globally; though with only 35 reactors currently being built across the world, Antony Froggatt argues the reality does not yet match the hype.

Building new nuclear power station. Image: AFP/Getty
The new reactor at Flamanville is one of only a handful in Europe
"It's more political rhetoric than anything that's actually been translated into building real reactors," he says.

Luis Echavarri, on the other hand, believes that Olkiluoto's troubles are just the natural consequence of being the test bed for a new design, and future EPR stations will progress more smoothly.

Boom times are coming, he thinks, and the industry can handle the demand - if governments get their acts together.

"In the early 1980s, we were able to put in place [globally] 32 reactors in a single year - more than 100 in just four years," he says.

"There is time to recover the situation we had 30 years ago, but only if governments act now."

France has long been serious about nuclear energy.

The fact that Mr Sarkozy and Mr Brown discussed it at their first official summit is another indication that Britain is now taking it seriously too.

Not that we would actually force a new nuclear fleet into existence, of course - in modern Westminster such a statist approach is unthinkable, with politicians preferring to facilitate and cajole and tickle the market into doing the right thing.

So far, there is no absolute proof that the market is convinced; John Hutton's dream could still die.

Planning is the now the sort of thing that only the French do.

Perhaps as he strode across the Emirates Stadium, basking in the glow of Wednesday night's victory over the English, Mr Sarkozy will have reminded Mr Brown of the planning that went into the French football academy at Clairefontaine, and how it eventually brought France the 1998 World Cup while England disappeared in a miasma of unplanned managerial switches, sendings off and drinking games.

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