French Nuclear Power Lowers Electricity Prices

Electricity prices for most of us will go up next month and once again the cost of fuel will move back to the top of the political agenda.

Many people look longingly across the channel to our nearest continental neighbour, France, where their electricity is Europe's cheapest.

Why? At least in part it's because most of France's power comes from nuclear, so spikes in oil, gas or other fuel prices make little difference.

The power station at Nogent-sur-Seine houses two of France's 58 nuclear reactors which, between them, account for almost three quarters of the country's electricity generation.

Compare that with just 16 reactors in the UK pumping in less than a fifth of our wattage and it's one of the reasons why the French have the lowest electricity bills in Europe and we have some of the highest.

For power station director Catherine Bach, the answer is simple.

France embraced nuclear power wholeheartedly 40 years ago.

She said: "In France, in the 1960s, effectively after the oil crisis, France chose nuclear and today we have an energy mix which is a little more than 70% of electricity coming from nuclear energy, other renewable fuels such as hydroelectric around 15%, the rest is from fossil fuels."

In the control room a handful of staff monitor every aspect of the plant's operation. When it is working flat out, it produces more than 1,300 megawatts of power.

Next door, the giant steam turbines churn out the electricity, fuelled by the nuclear reactors and cooled by the waters of the River Seine.

Last year, this power station produced 17 billion kilowatts of electricity, enough to power two million homes. Add in the output of the 56 other reactors and France is a net exporter of electricity and the UK is one of the customers.

France made its big push for nuclear power in the mid seventies when the world was gripped by the oil crisis, since then it has made nuclear the backbone of its energy supply.

But the disaster at Fukashima in Japan two years ago made the world think again, though Sebastien Blavier from Greenpeace in Paris says it is cost not safety which threatens the future of France's nukes.

He said: "All the nuclear power plants are becoming very old and we are facing an issue.

"Either we are going to have to pay a massive amount of money to extend their lifetime, with all the safety risks associated with that or we have to build new nuclear reactors.

"But that's going to be impossible in the time we have and also it'll be too expensive."

Nevertheless the nuclear option is still part of many countries' energy portfolios.

Britain has just signed up to a £16bn project to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset and the Mayor of Nogent-sur-Seine, Gerard Ancelin, says the reactor is a big boost to his town.

"These people make a living because of the nuclear sector. They are part of the local town and the local economy, subsidising it with their taxes; an important source of revenue for the town of Nogent-sur-Seine," he said.

The price of energy is the hottest political issue in the UK right now and with an election around the corner keeping them low like the French is likely to be a vote winner.

:: Watch Sky News live on television, on Sky channel 501, Virgin Media channel 602, Freeview channel 82 and Freesat channel 202.