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[cdn-nucl-l] Britain's David Martin...
Posted in the UK Independent on November 25, 2001 and at:
Charles Kennedy: Fourteen more nuclear plants? No thanks
The Government's commitment to nuclear energy makes no sense
25 November 2001
Britain, it appears, is about to see another hugely expensive phase of nuclear
power generation. According to leaked information, the Government is proposing
to commission 14 new nuclear reactors, while simultaneously writing off the
£34bn cost of decommissioning and cleaning up the existing plants.
These proposals have trickled out just before the publication of the
Government's long-awaited energy review. And they have followed hard on the
heels of the official announcement that the dangerous and uneconomic Sellafield
mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel plant will be allowed to go ahead.
All this was slipped out – like a whole variety of other controversial
announcements – presumably in the hope that criticism would be muted while
political discourse is suspended in the face of the terrorist threat. In the
wake of the 11 September outrages, the Prime Minister very properly condemned
Jo Moore's controversial email about "burying" bad news. But some in his
administration are apparently so addicted to spin that they can't break the
There are two linked issues here, revealing not just cynicism in the timing of
announcements, but ineptitude as well. Where is the "joined-up thinking" in the
Government revealing three major new policies that effectively commit us to a
nuclear future – without debate – just two months before it has promised to
publish the first ever comprehensive review of the UK's energy needs?
Sadly, we have seen such incoherence in the Government's approach before. New
Labour has run through four different energy ministers, with three different
energy policies, and two energy reviews in four years. Many of the renewable
energy schemes that they promoted when they first came to power are now
mothballed because the Utilities Act has imposed almost impossible barriers for
the generators to overcome. Across the country highly efficient combined heat
and power (CHP) schemes that right now should be cutting carbon emissions by
three million tons a year are standing idle – taxed and regulated to death.
We can't afford such incompetence. How Britain meets its energy needs over the
next few decades will decide whether we can reconcile our perfectly reasonable
wish to expand and prosper with a sustainable environment. These are two, often
conflicting, requirements that need to be resolved and we should be making
informed choices through public debate, without the obfuscation of spin and
I want to see a future where Britain is a world leader, generating ideas that
deliver a sustainable planet to our children and our children's children. We
won't achieve that without a sustainable society at home, and the key to that
lies in developing the right sources of energy. Those supplies must be secure
and they must be economic. Nuclear power is a throwback. It is neither secure,
sustainable nor economic.
It's hard to believe the Government could be serious about building 14 new
reactors. Side-stepping the security questions about such facilities following
the terrorist attacks in America – and temporarily ignoring the fact that no
one knows what to do with the waste these plants would generate – there is the
very real difficulty that they just don't make economic sense. If you query
that, just ask yourself why, if they are capable of making money, the banks and
finance houses aren't clamouring to support such projects. In fact, these
institutions sensibly prefer to concentrate on smaller, cheaper generators
powered by gas or renewable sources. Private enterprise has shunned nuclear
reactors all over the world; in the United States, for example, not a single
one has been ordered for nearly a quarter of a century.
Add to this the cost of unloading the multi-billion-pound price of nuclear
decommissioning on to the taxpayer – which those who are arguing for a new
generation of nuclear power ignore so that they can rewrite their commercial
case totally detached from the real costs – and the economic absurdities mount.
I would also suggest that a decision to subsidise any energy source by £34bn
needs rather more public discussion than we've seen so far.
There is no case for building 14 more nuclear power stations. There is no case
for building even one more. Instead nuclear energy must be phased out.
We cannot, unfortunately, simply close down Britain's existing reactors; that
would cause too much disruption to the country's energy supplies. But, as they
come to the end of their safe operating lives, they must not be replaced with a
new generation. For this is not so much a technology whose time is past, as one
whose time never really came.
The decision to go ahead with the MOX plant at Sellafield is even more
incomprehensible. Just three days after the 11 September attacks, the Prime
Minister warned the House of Commons that terrorists would use nuclear weapons
if they could and called for the trade in the technology and capability for
those weapons to be "exposed, disrupted, and stamped out".
Yet his government almost immediately pushed through approval for starting up
this plant. The Royal Society and leading US weapons designers say that it
would be possible for a terrorist group to extract the plutonium from the mixed
oxide fuel and use it for bomb-making.
Why are we taking this risk? The plant will never be economic. Not even British
Nuclear Fuels, the nationalised industry which owns Sellafield, pretends that
it will ever recover the £500m it cost to build and to maintain the MOX plant
while approval to start it was sought. The best estimate of a recent study,
commissioned by ministers, is that it might get back about a third of this over
But even this is wildly optimistic. To recover its running costs the plant will
have to work at 40 per cent capacity; at the moment it has firm contracts for
about a quarter of this. The lack of enthusiasm is scarcely surprising since
its product will be much more costly than ordinary nuclear fuel, while there is
reported to be 60 tons of plutonium already stored at Sellafield with no
legitimate users in sight.
In place of this ridiculous obsession with long-outdated technology, the
Liberal Democrats have answers to the questions posed by sustainability. We
plan to expand the growth of renewable energy sources beyond the Government's
target of 10 per cent saved from UK-based energy sources by 2010 – with a 1 per
cent year-by-year growth of renewable power generation for decades to come.
This would bring us sustainability for just a small fraction of the cost of
more nuclear power. We have submitted evidence to the energy review to that
effect – though it would now appear that its recommendations have been sunk
before they have even been printed.
There are successful precedents. In countries such as Denmark, which has struck
out boldly and created a renewable energy industry for its domestic market, the
benefits are being reaped. The Danes are profiting by selling their technology
and expertise abroad. We should be out there, too.
There are, of course, endless pressures on government; siren voices with
seductive, but sometimes fatal, messages. The nuclear lobby is one. Labour
should resist those voices, just as it should resist its inclinations to spin.
Instead, it should have faith in its own energy review. Then it should set
about laying strong foundations for a serious, sustainable energy policy for
the 21st century, rather than lurching backwards to the discredited policies of
The Rt Hon Charles Kennedy MP is leader of the Liberal Democrats