Tony Blair's backing for nuclear power suffered a blow yesterday when the Government's own advisory body on sustainable development came down firmly against the building of a new generation of reactors.
Despite the Prime Minister's well-known support for the nuclear industry, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) concluded that a new nuclear programme was not the answer to the twin challenges of climate change and security of supply. In a hard-hitting report, the 15-strong Commission identified five "major disadvantages" to nuclear power:
* The lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with highly toxic nuclear waste
* Uncertainty over the cost of new nuclear stations and the risk that taxpayers would be left to pick up the tab;
* The danger that going down the nuclear route would lock the UK into a centralised system for distributing energy for the next 50 years;
* The risk a new nuclear programme would undermine efforts to improve energy efficiency;
* The threat of terrorist attacks and radiation exposure if other countries with lower safety standards also opt for nuclear.
Nuclear power generates 20 per cent of the UK's electricity but, by 2020, that will have shrunk to 7 per cent and, by 2035, the last of the current generation of stations will have closed, potentially leaving the UK highly dependent on imported gas.
But instead of sanctioning a new nuclear programme, the SDC urged Mr Blair to back a further expansion of renewable power, fresh measures to promote energy efficiency and the development of new technologies such as "carbon capture" to tackle the environmental threat posed by fossil-fuelled stations.
The commission's report comes just three months before the Government publishes the results of its latest energy review, which is widely expected to pave the wave for a new generation of nuclear stations.
Sir Jonathon Porritt, the chairman of the commission, said:"Instead of hurtling along to a pre-judged conclusion (which many fear the Government is intent on doing) we must look to the evidence. There's little point in denying that nuclear power has its benefits but, in our view, these are outweighed by serious disadvantages. The Government is going to have to stop looking for an easy fix to our climate change and energy crises - there simply isn't one."
The commission said that even if the UK's existing nuclear capacity was doubled, it would only lead to an 8 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels. By contrast, renewable energy sources such as wind, wave, solar and biomass, which are zero-carbon sources of energy, could supply 68-87 per cent of the country's electricity needs if fully exploited.
Sir Jonathon added that opting for the "big-bang fix" of a new nuclear programme would jeopardise public-sector support for renewable power. It would also undermine efforts to improve energy efficiency, which the report estimates could reduce UK energy demand by as much as 30 to 40 per cent and cut carbon emissions by 20 million tons a year - equivalent to the output of 27 power stations.
Sir Jonathon said, that among the commission's 15 members, eight had come down against nuclear power, five had concluded it was not yet time for a new programme and two had said there was "maybe" a case for more reactors. He also took a sideswipe at other well-known environmentalists such as James Lovelock who backs nuclear power. "No one person should be accorded that over-arching credibility in the face of the evidence before us," he said.
The environmental pressure groups Friends of the Earth welcomed the commission's findings. Its director, Tony Juniper, said: "Tony Blair and his Government must now seize the historic opportunity presented by the energy review to set the UK on course to becoming a world leader in developing a low-carbon, nuclear free economy."
The Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, who is leading the review, gave a guarded reaction, saying: "As the commission itself finds, this is not a black and white issue. It does, however, agree that it is right we are assessing the potential contribution of new nuclear."
Philip Dewhurst, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, voiced his "disappointment" at the report's findings but said he was pleased that the commission had confirmed nuclear as a low carbon source of energy, recognised its improved safety record and only voted by 8-7 to rule out new reactors.
Meanwhile, London's Mayor Ken Livingstone unveiled plans to revolutionise the capital's energy supply system to fight climate change. London is to spend many millions of pounds "decentralising" its electricity supplies - switching from giant power stations to much smaller units, generating power locally - by joining forces with the energy multi-national EDF to develop local electricity generating sites and networks across the capital. The commission's report warns that this is just the kind of development that would be compromised if the UK went down the nuclear route.
The five key objections
No long-term solutions for the disposal of nuclear waste, such as the spent fuel from atomic power stations, are yet available, let alone acceptable to the public, the report says. Nuclear waste is dangerous, hard to manage, and long-lasting in its effects. For example, the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. The pressure group Friends of the Earth once produced a poster showing a Roman centurion with the caption: "If the Romans had had nuclear power, we'd still be guarding their waste."
The economics of building new nuclear power stations are highly uncertain, the report says. It adds there is little, if any, justification for public subsidy, but if costs escalate there's a clear risk that the taxpayer will have to pick up the tab. The capital costs of building stations are colossal and can swing wildly with project overruns and increases in interest rates. And do you factor in the enormous costs of decommissioning the stations at the end of their lives, or not?
A new generation of big nuclear power stations would lock the UK into a wasteful, centralised electricity distribution system for the next 50 years. What is needed is the much less wasteful micro-generation (small local power stations) and local distribution networks. Micro-generation is an idea whose time has come: only yesterday, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said the capital would seek to combat climate change and cut CO2 emissions with a massive switch to generating power locally.
If the UK brings forward a new nuclear power programme, we cannot deny other countries the same technology. With lower safety standards, they run higher risks of accidents, radiation exposure, proliferation and terrorist attacks. The security risks of any given nuclear power programme are hard to quantify, but no one would deny that they exist - for example in the movement of reactor-grade fuel or spent fuel, which might be seized by terrorists for potential use in a "dirty bomb".
A new nuclear power programme would send out a signal that a major technological fix is all that is required, says the report, and hurt efforts to encourage energy efficiency. This has largely been the approach of the Bush administration to climate change. Environmentalists would contend that this is a dangerous delusion, and that technical fixes such as nuclear power do nothing about the long-term problem. Only changing the energy system profoundly will make a real difference.