Monday, October 03, 2005

Pre-empting UK nuclear debate

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Comment | Pre-empting debate

Saturday October 1, 2005
The Guardian

At the Labour conference this week Tony Blair called for a much-needed debate on the future of nuclear power. But a couple of days later, as we reported yesterday, it emerged that there are plans to privatise British Nuclear Group, which handles nuclear reprocessing, clean-up and some generation with the likelihood that it would be bought by a big US corporation. BNG is a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels which has already announced plans to sell Westinghouse, its US based nuclear construction company. There are increasing signals that key cabinet ministers are determined to go ahead with a nuclear power station construction programme without a serious debate that might affect the outcome of the decision. Behind these moves lies a problem in Britain's nuclear industry whose management appears to lack the confidence to manage its own assets or build new power stations at a time when the challenge of global warming has ushered in a new lease of life for the world's hitherto beleaguered nuclear industry.

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There are two crucial questions that must be debated before any decisions are taken. The first is whether the costs and dangers attached to building new nuclear stations (terrorism, catastrophic accidents and decommissioning), though daunting, are less than the danger of not building them. The big advantage of nuclear generation is that it does not produce environmentally degrading emissions in the way that fossil fuel generation does. This is a calculation that needs detailed multi-disciplinary research which must allow for the fact that Britain's nuclear industry in the past consistently underestimated the true cost of nuclear energy. Moreover, the huge multi-billion costs of a new nuclear programme must be compared with what would happen if the same amount of money were spent on promising new technologies such as harnessing wave power. Comparisons such as these were never done in the past.
The second crucial question is if, and it is a very big if, the nuclear road is found to be the right one to take whether Britain should develop its own considerable expertise or privatise the operation. The second option would mean that big US corporations such as GE, Fluor and Halliburton or even nationalised energy concerns in France or Germany would do it instead (they already own most of the UK's conventional power stations). Sceptics might argue that as so many other industries including computers, motor manufacturing and the City are now controlled from abroad - without any adverse effect so far on overall employment - that one more industry, in which the UK frittered away an early technical lead decades ago, won't make any difference. There is some truth in that but other factors must also be taken into account. Strategically, do we want an industry as important as nuclear power to be controlled from another country at a time when our own reserves of oil and gas are starting to run down and when supplies of gas will increasingly come from from Siberia and oil from the Middle East? The recent crisis at Gate Gourmet shows how ruthlessly important decisions can be taken by foreign companies not steeped in local culture. Can the safety of nuclear power stations be safely entrusted to overseas companies with short profit horizons? In terms of safety the recent experience of Railtrack illustrates how this could prove disastrous, though the safety record of leading airlines has been impressive in recent years despite the fact that the industry is losing money.

No one pretends that a decision about the future of nuclear power will be easy. What is vital is that the government does not say it is consulting when it has already made up its mind and that it does not allow a piecemeal privatisation to happen before that consultation is complete.


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