Deborah Orr: It is hard to believe, but the Government has made a good case for keeping nuclear power

At a local level, supporting nuclear plants already in existence is a vote winner for Labour, not a vote loser
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The Independent Online

The generation that finds itself in political power at the moment was brought up in a world that feared the "nuclear menace" and carefully unplugged the television every night, lest it should burst spontaneously into flames. Today, although nuclear war is merely a beloved aspiration of sections of the developing world, a prejudice against all things nuclear remains (unless you happen to run a country), even though everyone has moved with the times in other respects.

Few of us now dream of turning our tellies right off, ever, just in came we might want to take the machine by surprise in a sudden burst of unpredictable channel surfing at some point during the night. As for phone-charging - why anally check when the battery is full, when you can just plug it in and leave it spewing out electricity all night?

Yet it must be fairly plain by now that it's mad to maintain this devil-may-care attitude to the expensive and destructive power we crave so much. What odd creatures we humans are, transfixed by our awful fear of an energy we fear will prove to be beyond our control, yet so pettily profligate with the energy that we've known for years now will bring about the end of the world as we know it anyway.

I know intelligent people, I kid you not, who think they don't have to be careful about the amount of energy they use, because they are signed up with companies supplying renewable electricity. And the newspapers are chock full of earnest pundits keen to share how well their environmental speeches are being greeted as they jet around the world. Such is the nutty arena into which the Government has thrust its latest energy review, a document so reasoned, sensible and even-handed that you can hardly believe it has emerged from the same government that recently sent men off to Afghanistan without realising that the Taliban were keen to slaughter them.

Still, people want their fights and are determined not to be foiled. Everything that the environmental groups recommend - an ambitious expansion for renewable energy and a concerted crackdown on consumer profligacy - is in the review. But it states that these cannot make up for the shortfall in nuclear energy that will come about in the years to come, so the environmentalists are apoplectic.

The review has long been dogged with controversy, not least because there was one just three years ago that has never been acted on. That old energy review, it is widely and huffily suggested, was abandoned because it displayed no enthusiasm for a new generation of nuclear power stations. Now that Tony Blair has fallen in love with the nuclear option, the critics say, a new one has been rustled up, far more in line with his thinking.

If this is the case, then I must say that it's the clearest example yet of how much Blair's influence has faded. Far from suggesting that nuclear power is the best or the only answer and that the Government is behind it, the review is as lukewarm about new nuclear power stations as a solar-heated water tank in winter.

The report contends that it would be silly not to continue to keep nuclear generation of power at the same level as it is just now, and outlines a hope that, with a tweak of a few planning regulations, it might be possible for up to six new power stations to be erected using entirely private funding on a few of the sites where the plants will be decommissioning over the next decade.

It's hard to see what possible encouragement this faint support might give a private company. Until one remembers of course that while the rest of us are atavistically fearful of the great destructive god called Nuclear, the local communities employed by them year in, year out, tend to be rather more sanguine about the whole thing. The Welsh Assembly, for example, has an anti-nuclear policy, but still wants a plant earmarked for decommissioning to be kept open in Wales.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth might be determined to fight the pro-nuclear guys. But they are not likely to get the sort of grassroots local campaigns that really work for them off the luminous green ground in places where plants are already in existence. Just as people hated the pits, but didn't want their communities destroyed, people have come to rely on the work that nuclear plants provide. However dodgy the general public thinks nuclear energy is, at a local level, supporting nuclear plants already in existence is a vote winner for Labour, not a vote loser.

Not that this little bit of realpolitick fully explains why Blair should suddenly be attracted to nuclear energy. The ghastly truth - to someone like me who has always been against it because they've always been against it - is that the arguments in favour of nuclear power generation in Britain seem more persuasive than the hysterical arguments opposing it. Renewables and decreased consumption definitely have to be ruthlessly pursued - even, I'm afraid, on the occasions when the green lobby starts kvetching about losing nice views.

As for clean coal, well, I can't help feeling some concern about where it's coming from. Do we mean environmentally clean, or morally clean? What sort of conditions are the men working under who are getting coal from the ground so much more cheaply than men in this country could? What sort of environmental implications are there abroad where open cast or deep mining might not be as closely regulated as might be desired? The Government deals with these issues in terms of fuel security - not relying on importation of power from abroad. But that is simply because as a champion of globalisation, it prefers not to campaign on such controversial Socialist ground.

In the nuclear camp, arguments are becoming more persuasive. But with new research suggesting that low levels of radiation are much less dangerous than previously thought, with the safety record over 50 years that we already boast in this country, and with the new generation of nuclear stations promising to cut waste to a 10th of what it was before, the pro-nuclear lobby can start sounding quite persuasive too.

Obviously there are reservations. One nuclear enthusiast claims that the entire nuclear waste from the whole British programme could be fitted into one small house. The thing is, I don't what that to be my house, and I'm pretty certain that he doesn't want it to be his house either. Which again is why renewable energy and consumer savings -especially commercially - have to be the first priority.

The greens say that with nuclear power in the frame, this will not happen. But I don't agree. The investment in the building of plants is great and the resistance of the public is significant. Why we're suddenly going to want expensive power that we don't trust has not been adequately explained by the green lobby. I'm sticking with my Good Energy contract. But when it comes to nuclear energy, I'll never say "never" again.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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