Monday, November 28, 2005

Blair needs to power on and go nuclear News - Opinion - Blair needs to power on and go nuclear


ENERGY policy in Britain has been a shambles, with disaster avoided thanks to lucky escapes rather than good stewardship, and a government choosing to turn a blind eye to repeated and increasingly desperate warnings over prices and supply.

In the last few weeks alone, natural gas spot prices have more than doubled, partly because shipments from the European Union have been held back; factories have temporarily shut down; business leaders have expressed outrage at the government's dithering; warnings of 1970s-style three or four-day weeks proliferate, with fears mounting about looming electricity shortages as a bitterly cold winter looms; and the National Grid is suffering an increasing number of breakdowns.

You might be forgiven for concluding that this confluence of events amounts to stumbling towards an unnecessary energy crisis, even as ministers blithely assure us that the country is "awash" with energy.

None of this should be happening, of course, in the world's fourth largest economy. But after eight years of complacency - behaving as if self-sufficiency in oil and gas thanks to the North Sea would continue forever while simultaneously refusing to risk political difficulties by pressing the case for more nuclear power - the government is now scrambling to find ways of keeping affordable electricity flowing, an astonishing position for a major western government to be in. Tony Blair was right to come out in favour of building new nuclear power stations last week, though his intervention was at least two years late, he has bottled out of giving his support before and even now he is only doing so under cover of the need for a "national debate".

Under Mr Blair's uncertain watch (and that of his successor-in-waiting, Gordon Brown) nuclear energy, the only power source that can rival fossil fuels in providing national grids with an efficient 'base load' of electricity generation, meet greenhouse gas emission standards and satisfy global demand for energy, has been deliberately condemned to wither from neglect.

In 2003, bogged down by the war in Iraq and at a time when British Energy, the main nuclear operator, was filing for bankruptcy because energy prices were so low, Mr Blair decided it was not worth picking a difficult fight to promote nuclear power, thus blowing his best opportunity to establish a rational energy policy. Instead he endorsed what was probably the most intellectually-defective White Paper ever produced on the subject. Given that it will take at least a decade before any new nuclear plant would start producing electricity, the lost time could be devastating.

Since the summer, meetings have taken place between the Department of Trade and Industry and some of Europe's largest energy companies about a new nuclear power programme.

The case for new nuclear power stations is strong. Britain's existing 12 nuclear stations currently provide 22% of electricity generation, already too little, with most set to shut over the next 15 years. Unless they are replaced - something for which there are as yet no concrete plans - there will be only three nuclear power stations left in operation by 2020, producing just 7% of electricity demand. Many other countries depend more heavily on nuclear power: in France around 75% of all electricity is nuclear-generated, in Belgium 55%, Sweden 50%, Switzerland 40% and Finland 27%.

The decline in Britain's nuclear energy capacity would not matter if a simple and secure alternative source of electricity were available; until now, coal, oil and North Sea gas have done the trick. But thanks to increasingly stringent environmental regulations, coal is becoming much more expensive; and with supplies of North Sea gas running out, Britain will be forced to rely on imported natural gas to produce its electricity (gas is supposed to account for a dangerous 60% of UK electricity by 2020, much of it coming from some of the most unstable and unsavoury regions of the world).

The problem is that, as Britain discovered the hard way last week, gas supplies are not reliable. The prospect of a little cold weather (Britain cold in winter - now there's a surprise!) was enough to send spot gas prices surging.

As the nuclear debate hots up the Greens will push an alternative agenda, to which the government has already paid lip service. In the 2003 White Paper, ministers said they wanted 10% of UK electricity generated from renewable sources (such as wind farms, burning organic material or harnessing tidal waves) by 2010 (up from 3-4% today) and even expressed the hope that the figure might rise to 20% by 2020.

As with most government targets, it stands no chance of being reached, despite a massive, subsidised programme to build wind farms; and it distracted the government from acting on nuclear power and pushing for a truly competitive EU energy market.

The goal at the time was not to secure energy supplies but to pursue environmental goals even stricter than the Kyoto protocol on global warming, which, if implemented in full, would have devastating consequences on the economic output of rich countries while doing almost nothing to slow climate change. Not content with its Kyoto commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 12.5% by 2010, the government puffed up its Green breast and promised to cut emissions by 20%, a pledge it repeated this year even though it knows it cannot meet it.

Renewable sources of energy suffer from two major problems: they are very expensive to set up; and they are intermittent - ie they do not produce energy on demand.

So Mr Blair should press ahead with a new nuclear power construction programme if he does not want to be blamed for serious energy shortages and high prices in the years to come. Contrary to Green propaganda, the new generation of nuclear plants (such as the ones France is about to build) can be made safe enough to withstand even extreme events such as earthquakes, aircraft crashes or even a terrorist attack. The nuclear industry accounts for less than a thousandth of radiation exposure; almost all of our exposure to radiation comes from natural sources.

But the biggest improvement in nuclear technology has been the drastic reduction in the volume of waste it produces: if modern plants were commissioned to replace the existing stations, Britain would be able to maintain its 20-25% share of nuclear-generated power and add only roughly 10% to the UK's volume of existing nuclear waste over their 60-year operating lifetime.

Current levels of electricity output from nuclear power could be maintained by ten 1,000-megawatt nuclear stations; but there is a good case for increasing Britain's reliance on nuclear to European levels. Mr Blair's review needs to find in favour of a large-scale and speedy nuclear station construction programme. Failure to do so risks devastating consequences for the British economy.

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