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Britain Tidal Power Plan Put on Hold in Statement on Energy Policy

Chris Huhne, the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, delivered a major energy policy statement today that endorsed nuclear power, without promising any money for it, and killed controversial plans to harness tidal power in the Severn estuary. Wildlife campaigners may be ecstatic about the Severn decision, as they worried that the proposed 10-mile barrage across the estuary would destroy the homeland of endangered birds, but alternative energy proponents will be mourning the loss of a chance to generate 5% of British energy needs without any carbon emissions.

Drawing on a feasibility study of the Severn barrage released today as well, Huhne cited high costs, up to £30 billion, according to some estimates, and lack of a "strategic case" for using public funding as reasons for axing the scheme now. But Huhne held out some small hope for barrage fans; the plan will be reviewed again in 2015.

The new energy policy mandates that at least 25% of U.K. electricity-generating capacity needs to be replaced by 2020 with cleaner options such as wind and solar energy. Although Huhne encouraged private companies to build new nuclear reactors, he made it clear that there will be "no levy, direct payment, or market support" for nuclear power "unless similar support is also made available more widely to other types of [energy] generation."

Greenpeace has already warned that the new energy statement is "yet another attempt to talk up the prospects of nuclear."

Greenpeace energy and climate team head Jim Footner stressed that "nuclear power is hugely expensive. ... Huhne and the rest of the government need to drop this costly distraction and invest in the real technologies that will tackle climate change and provide tens of thousands of new British jobs."

The news of the Severn barrage decision doesn't come as a major surprise to many. Hydraulic engineer Richard Burrows of the University of Liverpool says that although the technology exists for generating tidal power, it isn't currently cost-effective when compared with alternative energy sources, which is why the project is not going ahead in the current economic situation. The test of tidal power's future, he adds, will be whether parties in other locations also drop their projects, or continue to push ahead.

"But if we're looking to the next 100 years," asks Burrows, "where are other sources [of energy] unless we tap into tidal and wind power?"