As the Government announces its latest energy review, little more than two years after the last one, it is already clear that it is intended to find justification for a new generation of nuclear power stations.
As so often in the past with energy reviews, the emphasis will be on the electricity supply industry. Though transport and energy efficiency are included in the terms of reference, it is unlikely that any detailed consideration will be given to these areas.
Before the privatisation of the electricity supply industry in the 1990s, it was understandable for Governments to focus on electricity rather than the transport and industry sectors; electricity was the sector where they exercised most control. Though the CEGB and Scottish boards had some autonomy, the Treasury had tight hold of the purse strings and decisions on where, when and what type of power stations would be built were controlled by Government.
On privatisation of the non-nuclear power stations in the early 1990s, some observers expressed concern over where the incentive would be for private companies to build new generating capacity to ensure there was sufficient output to meet periods of high demand.
However, privatisation brought with it the “dash-to-gas” which companies saw as a cheap way to generate electricity and boost their profits. This added to what was already a significant overcapacity and put off the issue of potential shortages in electricity supply for over a decade, but now with imminent closure of many coal-fired and nuclear power stations power shortages are on the political agenda.
That the UK is also now a net importer of gas, has added to these concerns.
At the very least, the Government and media’s sudden discovery of security of supply as a major issue has added a string to nuclear power’s otherwise threadbare bow.
The only other string – nuclear’s supposed zero-carbon status – has been strengthened by the “failure” of energy efficiency and renewables to tackle climate change.
Of course, the real culprit in the country’s failure to meet the Government’s self-imposed CO2 target is the transport sector. But with the Government giving the green light to unconstrained growth in aviation, its continued road building, and the lack of resolve on fuel duty shown by our Iron Chancellor when faced with a rag-bag of disgruntled truckers and farmers, it seems the electricity supply industry will be asked not just to meet its own share of CO2 cuts, but everybody else’s as well.
In the circumstances, two strings might very well be all the nuclear industry needs.
The economics of nuclear power are dodgy at best, but the Government can provide hidden and overt subsidies such as to make the cost of nuclear power whatever it wants it to be.
Terrorism is a double-edged sword. The risk of nuclear power stations being terrorist targets may once have been a fantasy, but it is now all too real. But for tabloid readers, the risks of relying on Johnny foreigner in such times may be seen as even worse.
And next summer, when the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management presents its findings on the least bad option for our nuclear waste, that the nuclear industry and its political and media supporters will announce that the problem of nuclear waste has been solved.
The case for nuclear power is not about the real costs, the real environmental impacts or the real alternatives.
With the Government dependent on increasingly rebellious backbenchers, it will be public perception of nuclear power which will decide if it has a future.
The arguments for nuclear power have become simple (if simplistic); the arguments against are now much more complex.
The economic and environmental credentials of nuclear power may be straight out of Alice in Wonderland, but many people will be more worried that their lights might go out for a few hours than that they might die of cancer in twenty years. And they assume the total cost of their electricity is what they pay to their electricity supplier, rather than also a chunk of what they pay in tax.
It will not be easy for those environment groups and others opposed to nuclear power to make their case.
Of course, the Government already knows the truth of the case, its reasons for wanting nuclear power are about exercising a level of control over the electricity supply industry they haven’t had since privatisation, rewarding big business and industry, and “solving” the problem of Global Warming with a single policy decision.
The case against nuclear power needs to be put not to Government, or its review, but to a public which often does not have the time or inclination to get to grips with complex issues, especially when Government spin offers them a simple solution on a plate.
Recent opinion polls on nuclear power have been mixed, but there has certainly been a softening of opposition, ironically in no small part because of the environment movement’s success in forcing climate change up the political agenda. It will take a lot of hard work over the coming months if the environment movement is to re-establish the initiative on nuclear power.
No2nuclearpower editorial team