Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Scotland must face its nuclear destiny

Scotland must face its nuclear destiny - Sunday Times - Times Online

There is no excuse for the executive dragging its feet. Only one method of power generation guarantees the country?s economic future, argues Tim Luckhurst

The year 2003 was a vintage year for dodgy dossiers. The first, promoting the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons he could launch in 45 minutes, inflicted grievous damage on Tony Blair?s reputation. The second posed a graver threat to the national interest.
The white paper on energy concluded that nuclear power was ?an unattractive option? for meeting Britain?s future electricity needs. The prime minister knew it was untrue. He understood it would cripple efforts to tackle global warming, but antipathy to nuclear power is so entrenched that Blair pretended he could postpone reality.

Last week that pretence unravelled. No 10 was still imprecise and the advice from Sir David King, the government?s chief scientific adviser, avoided firm conclusions. But nothing could disguise the logic. Without a new generation of nuclear power stations, Britain will fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

At Holyrood there was predictable dissent. Labour, Liberal and Green MSPs recalled Jack McConnell?s pledge that the executive has the power to stop nuclear power stations being built in Scotland, whatever Westminster decides.

In a week when the first minister was humiliatingly rebuffed for pretending Scotland can operate a different asylum regime from England, that sounded highly unlikely. But among devolved politicians, faith endures that the executive can use planning laws to block a nuclear power programme.

It is nonsense. Energy policy is a reserved power. Using student union-style reinterpretation of rules to obstruct government will just win another bloody nose for the executive. But the problem is not that local politicians can prevent a new era of nuclear power. They can?t. But they can deprive Scotland of the environmental and economic benefits.

When Whitehall commissions new nuclear power stations, it will have no strong opinion about where they should go. The most plausible result of executive hostility is that nuclear operators will avoid building where hostility is guaranteed.

Since 1997, Scotland has been treated to a parade of incomparable piffle about the prospects for renewable energy. Let us delude ourselves no longer. If every site of natural beauty from Eyemouth to Wick were covered in windmills and the coast was lined with wave generators, Scotland would still need to find a reliable source of electricity. The British government knows it; Scotland must wise up.

UK-wide, the proportion of power generated by nuclear stations stands at 22%. But Scotland is ahead of the game. The nuclear facilities at Hunterston B and Torness supply 50% of Scotland?s electricity demand.

But British Energy expects to decommission Hunterston in 2011 and Torness in 2023. If replacement capacity is not ordered, we will fall back on coal, gas and oil. Scotland?s carbon footprint will expand. Rather than cutting greenhouse gases, our insatiable demand for electricity will increase them year on year.

The opportunity facing ministers in Edinburgh is plain. We have scientists who understand nuclear safety and the storage of waste. Our police and military have procedures for ensuring security. So Scotland can approach a new nuclear era with confidence.

Against this opportunity stand increasingly peculiar arguments from the anti-nuclear lobby.

I first witnessed the origins of that hostility near Dunbar in 1978, where, to my enduring shame, I was one of the idiots who turned up to protest against Torness nuclear power station. The assorted peaceniks, Socialist Workers and girls in dungarees who made up the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace (Scram) alerted me to my silliness. Their arguments were a confused collage of the hideous consequences of nuclear war, mutant monsters from 1950s? sci-fi movies and a conspiracy theory that Torness must, secretly, house weapons.

During the cold war, nuclear power had become linked with weapons. Even sensible people condemned anything involving radioactivity as inherently sinister. Paranoia lurked around the fact that radioactive waste remains radioactive for centuries. I forget how many times Scram activists reminded me ?Long after you?re dead it will still be emitting radiation?.

It is a non-argument. Years after we are all dead the M8 will still be a motorway. Longevity does not confer intrinsic moral status. But Scotland is powerfully swayed by the illusion that nuclear power is malign. A poll during the general election revealed that only 17% of the electorate backs nuclear power.

How different that is from the heady mood of optimism that existed in September 1964 when the Queen Mother opened Hunterston A. Contemporary reports described ?one of the cleanest plants in the country, where 560 men and women work in ideal conditions of safety?.
The Glasgow Herald boasted that from the moment the Hunterston reactor was connected to the national grid in July 1964, ?Scotland used more nuclear electricity per head of population than any other country in the world?.

Granted, this was the new Elizabethan era. School children learnt that a 1in-long nuclear fuel pellet could produce as much electricity as two tons of high-quality coal, and Nigel Molesworth, their literary hero, declared ?Whiz for Atoms?. The government hinted nuclear electricity might one day be unmetered.

Principle among the claims advanced by today?s anti-nuclear lobby, notably Friends of the Earth Scotland, is the notion that the nuclear industry does not know how to deal with waste.

This is silly. Waste must be encased in concrete, glass or lead and stored on secure sites. Hard lessons have been learnt, not least at Dounreay, about what happens when it is done badly. But the argument is designed to be misleading.

When Friends of the Earth claims: ?The nuclear industry has been unable to demonstrate any safe way to manage its waste,? it means it objects to the storage of waste anywhere, ever. It is that old longevity argument again, luminous in its simpleton stupidity and combined with a threat to object to any proposal to store nuclear waste in Scotland.

Beyond that, anti-nuclear obsessives fall back on the claim that nuclear power routinely kills lots of people.

That happened only once, at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. Opponents of nuclear power exaggerate the death toll. Friends of the Earth Scotland says ?30,000 or more extra cancer deaths are expected to result overall? and claims Chernobyl is still poisoning the world.

A definitive report by the Chernobyl Forum, a coalition of the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency, dismisses that as nonsense. A total of 4,000 will die from the long-term effects of the accident and the danger is restricted to an area of about 19 miles around the site. Of course it is too many, but nothing like it has ever happened anywhere else.

Comparing Chernobyl to anything proposed for Scotland is to compare the Wright brothers? Flyer with Air Force One. Western nuclear power stations have proved the safest way of generating electricity there is.

Coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity. The French power company Electricit´┐Ż de France is a veteran of an economy in which 80% of electricity is nuclear generated, and nobody would have it any other way. It can build clean, efficient nuclear stations in three years without any public subsidy.

If the executive cared about the environment it would stop wittering on about planning laws and petition Whitehall for permission to start building four power stations now. They could deliver all of Scotland?s energy needs and present a huge environmental bonanza.

Twenty eight other countries have started to convert to nuclear energy, including Finland, where the wind blows hard and often. For Scotland the choice is not if but when. Delay would be inexcusable.


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