Commentary: Fencing with an energy policy

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John Guinness, erstwhile Permanent Under Secretary at the Department of Energy and now chairman at British Nuclear Fuels, speaks with some enthusiasm about the compelling need for nuclear power and the renaissance of the industry.

Wishful thinking, cynics might say, in a country where the building of new reactors, apart from Sizewell B, has been frozen. Mr Guinness lives in a world where the Cold War is a thing of the past, where environmental lobby groups shout endlessly about the alleged effects of radiation on the population now and for centuries to come, and where considerable environmental questions (and potential liabilities) continue to hang over the business.

But his words and his reasoning are echoed by Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear. The three hope to persuade the Government to give the green light to a nuclear programme when it reviews the future of the industry in 1994.

The argument is that if the Government wants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and substances that cause acid rain, it must come down in favour of a strong nuclear industry. Nuclear power is already the source of a fifth of the electricity in the UK and Nuclear Electric is asking for life extensions on existing reactors to help keep things that way.

The problem for the nuclear companies is that they are living in a vacuum. They are expected to act as commercial companies, increasing productivity, planning for the future and generally being as private-sector as a public company can be. But the long period before the 1994 review, and the uncertainty about whether the industry's effective subsidy will continue, are hardly ideal. Does the Government really need to take so long to settle its environmental and energy policies?