Monday, October 03, 2005

Blair must address contentious issue of nuclear power Business - Top Stories - Blair must address contentious issue of nuclear power


IF THERE is one certainty in the debate about nuclear power it is that a decision about it is never easy.

Tony Blair's hint last week that Britain might push the button and go for the nuclear option to meet the country's electricity needs will spark intense argument until such time as that decision is finally taken.

What may swing the vote in favour this time is that there are factors supporting the nuclear lobby that were never previously on offer: a greater degree of safety; greater assurances about the disposal of waste; and evidence of climate change that has forced opponents to pause before castigating nuclear as environmentally damaging.

Its clean technology, though, has to be offset against the huge cost of building power stations to the required capacity and of decommissioning sites and storing radioactive waste which, despite advances in technology, remains the biggest single bug bear and a potential deal-breaker.

Yet, what choices does the government have at its disposal? Hopes that alternative green power sources would render nuclear unnecessary are proving difficult to justify economically, though the momentum for wave and wind energy has gathered sufficiently to ensure they will continue to play a part in the future energy mix.

At present, Britain's 12 nuclear power stations provide 22% of the country's electricity but at present rates of decommissioning there will only be three in operation by 2020, producing just 7% of Britain's requirements. The decline has implications for Britain's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Jostling among nuclear plant builders and operators will step up over the coming months as Blair and his Cabinet come under increasing pressure to produce an answer sooner rather than later. As we report today, the battle is likely to involve British and foreign companies, raising further political questions about whether Britain's power should be controlled from abroad.

There are vital questions to be answered before a decision is taken, but the government cannot continue to shirk its responsibility.

Replacing Digby

WHO on earth will replace Sir Digby Jones when he hands over the CBI baton next year? To some, the director-general is an oaf dressed in jester's clothing, a big-mouthed fool with a propensity to put his foot in it. To others, he's been a breath of fresh air, a straight-talking Brummie with a good line in bringing the Chancellor down a peg or two.

Jones made himself persona non grata with some in Scotland following his notorious 2002 speech to the CBI Scotland annual dinner when he warned that anti-English sentiment in Scotland was damaging the country's economy. He was booed and some thought he would never return.

But Jones has been back - regularly - continuing to take on the Scottish Executive, not least over business and water rates, though once again messing up the message by not getting his story straight.

His claim earlier this year that one undisclosed big company was quitting Scotland and moving south because of high rates proved wide of the mark when this paper identified the mystery company as Scottish Courage. It's still here and shows no sign of moving away.

On the bigger stage he has taken on the Chancellor over taxation, and championed the view that profits provide the means by which the government can build hospitals and schools. At times, the story has sounded corny and repetitive, but he has made his point.

Headhunters have now been lined up to find a successor who will be expected to make a similar impact, if not necessarily in the same style. But whatever his shortcomings, Jones has been keen to get among his members and hear what they have to say. Despite his faux pas of three years ago, he is even revered in some parts of Scotland.

Skill shortage woes

CHANGING demographics are adding to the problems of planning the future. After last week's research showing that we are living longer - life expectancy has risen three and a half years in the past decade - comes further analysis of the post-war baby-boom generation which is now heading for retirement.

With fewer young people to keep a top-heavy population of pensioners in a comfortable lifestyle there is added pressure on governments throughout the developed world and on companies who are facing the problem of finding and retaining skilled people in a more limited pool.

IBM, the computing giant now heavily into business consultancy, has launched a new programme worldwide to advise companies what they should do to meet these difficulties and what to expect if they don't.

The statistics, as detailed in our story on page 2, are startling and should persuade the most stubborn and complacent of bosses to act now.


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