Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Nucleus of the problem

Times on-line Editorial

Nucleus of the problem
Political dithering on nuclear energy has intensified public doubts

The Government’s continuing failure to produce its long promised strategy for meeting Britain’s future energy needs is damaging British industry. Uncertainty about future supplies compounds already acute concern about soaring prices and the added burden of the Climate Change Levy. Further delays in reaching a decision will affect not just industrial consumers, but households too. Immediately after the election, Alan Johnson, the minister responsible, was told by officials that policy must be decided before the summer recess if Britain was to avoid running short of energy as early as 2008.

The recess is upon us, and still there is silence. The main reason appears to be Labour’s extreme reluctance to say where it stands on nuclear power.

By 2020, Britain needs to generate up to 50 gigawatts of new capacity, both to meet rising demand and to replace two major energy sources: the coal-fired stations that will fall foul of the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive; and 12 ageing nuclear stations that currently supply 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity. Since the Government is committed to reducing carbon emissions in 2020 to 20 per cent below 1990 levels, since these are currently rising rather than falling, and since nuclear power is the only emissions-free method of mass energy generation, new nuclear plants ought logically to be part of the difficult equation. But politically, public confidence about nuclear power must first be revived.

Our Populus survey today shows that popular distrust of nuclear energy has if anything increased. Half of those polled believe that nuclear power is unsafe, and three out of five think that new stations should not be built because of waste disposal risks.

Reactor design has in fact greatly improved, with shut-down technology that makes a Chernobyl-style disaster impossible. So — although there is as yet no way of rendering nuclear waste harmless — have methods of secure underground disposal. Several eminent scientists and environmentalists have been won over to nuclear energy. People want clean air and effective policies on global warming. They worry about Britain’s growing dependence on overseas fuel sources. and prospective energy shortages. Why then do so many refuse to contemplate the building of new nuclear power stations? One answer, the survey suggests, is that the public does not trust either politicians or energy companies to tell them the truth. Part of that is down to a history of mistaken defensiveness on the part of the British nuclear industry, which to its credit is now considerably more candid. More importantly, so long as politicians fight shy of the topic, as Labour has done, so long will people suspect the worst.

In France, Japan, China and meticulously cautious Finland, debate has been joined and the public convinced. There and elsewhere, research neglected for decades has picked up speed. But all the British public has to go by is an unsatisfactorily ambiguous 2003 White Paper that, without ruling out nuclear energy, led people to believe, mistakenly, that energy-saving combined with renewable energy could plug the yawing gap between supply and demand. This greatly overstates their potential. Instead of being challenged, and funded, to surmount cost and waste disposal problems, Britain’s nuclear industry is being left to wither. This is against the national interest. And it does not, as our poll shows, win politicians any credit with the public.


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