Charles Kennedy: Fourteen more nuclear plants? No thanks

The Government's commitment to nuclear energy makes no sense
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 habit.

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 leaks.

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 its lifetime.

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 20th.

The Rt Hon Charles Kennedy MP is leader of the Liberal Democrats