Austria to challenge state aid for UK nuclear plant

Austria's announcement yesterday that it would challenge state aid for a new nuclear plant in the UK comes as the latest step in the country's lone campaign to roll back atomic energy in Europe.

Since the late 1970s, Austria had fiercely opposed nuclear power, after its population in an unprecedented vote barred the only power plant in the country from providing a watt of power.

Apart from Italy, Austria's neigbouring countries generate nuclear power, although Germany, to the north, plans to phase out its plants by 2022.

''It's an energy source from the last century,'' environment minister Andrae Rupprechter said in a recent interview.

''It is outdated because it's a nonsustainable, high-risk source that is only competitive with an unjustified subsidy,'' he added, referring to the Hinkley Point C contract in western England.

Austria filed its complaint at the European Court of Justice after the UK proposed £17 billion ($26.5 billion) in state funds for building two reactors, projected to cost £24.5 billion.

Rupprechter would contest the EU's executive commission's determination last October that found the deal fell within the framework of EU state aid rules.

According to the minister, the aid was  ''illegitimate.''

''If we establish high subsidies for nuclear energy, we will never have an even competition situation,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann said in a statement yesterday. "Subsidies are there to support modern technologies that lie in the general interest of all EU member states. This is not the case with nuclear power."

"Nuclear power plants are dangerous, expensive and - compared with...wind, hydro and solar energy - neither economically nor ecologically competitive," he added.

However, it was not only Brussels' support of the UK's choice of energy source that had invited controversy. Opponents also slammed the commissioners' decision to back such a project, with its obscene price tag. Whereas the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station was initially billed at £16 billion (€22.6 billion, $25 billion dollars), according to estimates of EU officials the total would be closer to £25 billion.

To make matters worse, the UK government had also guaranteed French utility group EDF, which would build the two new reactors in Somerset, a generous, elevated 35-year fixed electricity rate.