A year-long government inquiry into Britain's future energy requirements is expected by the Prime Minister to conclude that more nuclear energy is the only plausible answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The nuclear industry is willing to proceed without any government money on three conditions: that it is supported with planning applications, is helped with nuclear waste disposal and offered protection against an energy price crash.
In the past fortnight, the Prime Minister has privately disclosed that he is firmly in favour of more nuclear reactors, and that he expects the coming inquiry to make a case that can be supported by an all-party consensus. He believes the mood among Labour MPs has been irreversibly shifted by their involvement in the global warming debate, and that a backlash from the Iraq war has stoked concern about UK dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Employment, Blair believes, will win over many on the Left - especially as 8,000 jobs are expected to be lost during the decommissioning of Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria, which employs 12,000. However, the situation in Scotland is complicated by the Labour-Liberal Executive's opposition to any new station north of the Border.
Yesterday, Scottish LibDem leader Nicol Stephen upped the ante in a speech to his party, saying the country should shift away from nuclear towards more wind and wave power. The Prime Minister's position on nuclear power has been made clear by those who have spoken to him directly and believe he wants to send out a positive signal to the nuclear industry so that they start planning now. Blair is prepared to go as far as he can without prejudging the nuclear review. A fortnight ago, he made the case for nuclear power to the Labour Party conference while stopping short of calling for its implementation.
"Global warming is too serious... to split into opposing factions on it," he told delegates. "And for how much longer can countries like ours allow the security of our energy supply to be dependent on some of the most unstable parts of the world?" The Department of Trade & Industry confirmed on Friday that it has been holding discreet talks with major energy providers about nuclear options: E-On and RWE of Germany, and EdF of France. BNFL has a design for a new plant. The issue of nuclear power was avoided by the 2003 Energy White Paper, completed at a time when plunging wholesale energy prices triggered the collapse of British Energy. But rising prices make this viable again. A merchant banking source advising one of the firms said they would seek a system where this trap door could not open again - and, above all, a degree of political stability to ensure a future government would not change direction.
"We need certainty about energy prices, and that is very different from subsidy," he said. "We need a thoroughly pro-nuclear White Paper, without any sense of an argument about it from the Treasury." This may come from the inquiry into the economics of climate change commissioned by Chancellor Gordon Brown and led by Sir Nicholas Stern, deputy permanent secretary at the Treasury and former chief economist at the World Bank. The Chancellor now has family ties with the nuclear industry. Andrew Brown, the Chancellor's brother, is head of media relations at EdF, the French energy giant expected to be a main bidder. Blair's advisers are pro-nuclear.
Sir David King, his chief scientific officer, decided three years ago that renewable energy sources would not be developed fast enough to fill the gap expected in 2020. Other Cabinet sceptics are coming around. Margaret Beckett, Environment Secretary, last week claimed at a climate change conference that she has "never said" she is against nuclear power. This contrasts with remarks by Elliot Morley, environment minister, who said last month that "nuclear plants are expensive and if you're looking at the energy mix, I think you'll probably get more value from investment in clean coal".
Research so far shows that, while there is political opposition, it is far from overwhelming. A commons motion opposing more nuclear energy has been signed by only 41 of Labour's 354 MPs. A Mori poll of MPs released last week by the British Nuclear Industry showed the balance of opinion in Labour against, with 45% of Labour opposed and 35% for. Brian Wilson, a former energy minister who retired from politics in the May general election, said fears of a House of Commons rebellion are overblown because new plants do not require the permission of MPs. "There has not been a nuclear moratorium - it's open to anyone to come up with new proposals," he said. "And you do not need legislation, just a level of commitment that makes new propositions economically feasible."
A DTI spokesman said it was "highly unlikely the planning issue wouldn't have ministerial involvement" but confirmed that a new power plant "wouldn't necessarily involve primary legislation". Research conducted by the DTI has identified three sites to host a new nuclear reactor: Hinkley in Somerset, Sizewell in Suffolk and Hunterston in Ayrshire.
Posted on 11th October 2005
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