Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Nuclear power 'back with a vengeance'

Britain, UK news from The Times and The Sunday Times - Times Online

By Simon Freeman

Tony Blair is today using a speech to business leaders to launch a six-month review of Britain's future energy policy, opening the way for a new fleet of civil nuclear power plants.

In a speech to the CBI?s annual conference in London, the Prime Minister will describe "feverish rethinking" over energy policy around the world as countries attempt to meet obligations to reduce carbon emmissions.

Although the Government remains officially neutral on the outcome of the review, environment campaigners say that Mr Blair has become convinced that building new nuclear power stations is also the only way to secure future energy needs.

The stance is a reversal of Labour's position of less than two years ago, in a 2003 white paper nuclear power described as an "unattractive option", instead promoting renewable sources.

Until recently, nuclear power met almost a quarter of the UK?s energy needs, but that figure is likely to drop to 4 per cent by 2010 unless new reactors are built.

According to an advance copy of today's speech, Mr Blair believes that wind, wave and solar power will never match the capacity of the decommissioned coal-fired and nuclear plants.

The Prime Minister will tell the CBI that energy policy is "back on the agenda with a vengeance". How the vast capital investment will be funded, however, remains unclear with the Government insisting that public money will not be required.

Mr Blair will say: "Round the world you can hear the heavy sound of feverish rethinking. Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency...

"By around 2020 the UK is likely to have seen closure of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30 per cent of today?s electricity supply. Some of this will be replaced by renewables, but not all of it can."

Mr Blair?s comments will fuel anger among some environmentalists, including Friends of the Earth, who today called for the review to focus on "clean and safe alternatives to fossil fuels".

There are those within the green movement who see nuclear power - free of emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide - as a key weapon in the battle against global warming.

There is also support for nuclear among businesses concerned about the UK?s reliance on imports of gas from abroad, amid fears of power shortages if the coming winter is as cold as forecast.

Speculation that the Prime Minister personally backs the nuclear option was heightened earlier this month when his Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, publicly urged him to "give the green light" to the sector.

Sir David has provided Mr Blair with studies of the UK?s future energy needs which are certain to have been influential on his thinking. He has warned that the decline in nuclear power was contributing to the failure to meet Government targets on reducing CO2 emissions by 2010.

The Government is being driven by the Kyoto treaty to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 12.5 per cent below 1990 levels over the next seven years. It classifies nuclear as emission free.

In May, a Downing Street adviser told The Times: "You will see over the next few weeks how we are going to push ahead with the solution to Britain?s energy problems and ensure security of supply in the future. The prime minister will foster a major public debate around the nuclear issue and this is the right thing to do."

The review panel will be chaired by the energy minister Malcolm Wicks, it will aim to report in the summer of 2006.

Alan Duncan, the Trade and Industry Secretary, maintained today that his position remained strictly neutral on the nuclear issue. He told the BBC that changes in the energy market and technology since the 2003 white paper had prompted the new review.

He told the Today programme: "The Prime Minister has not made a decision [to revive nuclear power]. The only decision he has made is that he has to make a decision: whether to open the door to nuclear power or to close it."

Friends of the Earth today said that a comprehensive programme of energy efficiency, renewable energy and cleaner use of fossil fuels could allow the UK to meet targets for cutting greenhouse gases, while maintaining fuel security. Tony Juniper, director, said: "The UK can meet its targets for tackling climate change and maintain fuel security by using clean, safe alternatives that are already available. But these have so far been underplayed by the Prime Minister, who has fallen for the nuclear industry?s slick PR campaign.

"The Government?s Energy Review must cut through this spin, promote the clean, safe measures we know will meet our energy needs, and show that nuclear power is unnecessary - as well as unsafe and uneconomic."

The Conservatives are unlikely to stand in the way of a revival of nuclear power, as it meets the Tory ideal of energy soveriegnty.

David Willetts, the Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, was critical of Labour's apparent prevarication.

"To launch an energy review only now is testament to Labour?s failure to tackle the problem a long time ago," he said.

"A leak from the DTI in May showed that civil servants were calling on the Government to start an energy review, but it has taken them seven months and an energy crisis to get things rolling. After the shambles of the Turner Report, what are the chances of Gordon Brown agreeing anyway?"

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Norman Baker said: "The suspicion must be that Tony Blair has already decided to advocate an increase in the use of nuclear power. This review will serve little purpose if the Prime Minister has already made up his mind.

"What is needed is to rule out an extension of nuclear power now. This will provide the certainty that the industry so desperately needs, and will allow us to focus on cleaner renewable energy."

The Times revealed earlier this month that Mr Blair wants planning procedures to be quickened so that the first stations could be under construction within ten years, far earlier than expected.

The stations would be built on existing sites in the hope of reducing public opposition and swifter planning and building procedures. They would involve the latest technology expected to be adopted soon in France and America.

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary and the Cabinet?s leading opponent of nuclear power, hinted that she would support the move - albeit reluctantly. She remains insistent that investment in atomic energy does not overshadow the resources being poured into renewable sources.


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