Hamish McRae: Forget nuclear power - focus on greener energy sources and promoting conservation

There are ways in which we can both improve our own performance and influence the world for the better
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Let's face it, nuclear power has been a huge disappointment. Just over 51 years ago, Lewis B Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, famously told a New York audience of science writers that: "Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."

He was, of course, hopelessly wrong on the economic potential of nuclear power stations, but he was by no means alone. The UK's nuclear programme has been particularly disappointing. Britain had the world's first commercial-scale nuclear power station, Calder Hall, up and running in 1956. But according to the World Nuclear Association, Britain's 23 nuclear plants last year produced only 19 per cent of the country' power, down from 29 per cent in 1999.

By contrast France manages to generate 78 per cent of its power from nuclear. But that is the exception: the US produces only 20 per cent from nuclear, Japan 29 per cent, Germany 32 per cent and Italy none at all. China and India, the countries that matter most, looking to the future, produce only 2-3 per cent of their power from nuclear stations. Overall, 16 per cent of the world's electricity comes from the 441 commercial nuclear plants and that proportion has not risen for the past 20 years.

So the technology can be made to work, but the only real commercial use is power generation and even there, it is a significant but not overwhelmingly important source of power. And the two large countries where energy demand is growing fastest, China and India, hardly use it at all.

This is the essential background to the Prime Minister's confirmation yesterday that the government's forthcoming energy review would include looking at the nuclear option. The Greenpeace trapeze artists managed to create a PR coup for Tony Blair, who is very good at handling that sort of thing. But nothing changes the basic arithmetic that whatever Britain does on nuclear power will not change the global energy picture to any significant extent.

That is not to say that what we do does not matter. We have essentially three options. One is to shut down our ageing nuclear plants and not replace them. Two is to replace them with better-designed and somewhat larger ones on the same sites. Three is to do two and also build new plants on other sites. We will probably take option two, thereby maintaining the proportion of UK power coming from nuclear at something between 20 and 30 per cent.

But that will not change the world. You are not going to have the prime ministers of China and India saying: "Wow, that is really important. Now we know we have to build lots of nuclear power stations/stop building any, because that is what the great Tony Blair thinks is right."

Nor, by the way, will they say: "Oh gosh, we have to be really careful, because those Greenpeace chaps might disrupt our speeches too."

So what we do on nuclear may matter for us but it won't matter for the world. There are however two aspects of global energy policy where the UK does have quite a bit of influence and could have more. These are promoting non-nuclear, greener energy sources and promoting energy conservation.

Among the world's giant oil companies the one regarded as most "green" in opinion surveys is BP. That is partly a tribute to clever public relations but there is also some substance. Lord Browne of Madingley, BP's chairman, is perhaps the most thoughtful leader of a large energy group and his perceptions have shaped the company's attitudes. Just this week BP announced that it was forming an alternative energy unit, doubling its investment in low-carbon fuels. Quite separately, it is also among the leaders of Western oil groups in investing in China.

Put those two together and, yes, you really do start to change things. Other oil groups are terrified of having a non-green image and are working hard to improve both perceptions and reality. What BP does will be watched very closely by Shell and Exxon. If the giant oil groups are to be major energy companies in another 30 years' time they have to think "beyond petroleum", the BP slogan.

Actually, this goes beyond energy companies. Several of our large companies are thinking of trying to be "carbon-neutral" - that is to offset any energy used by finding ways of mopping up the carbon their activities release. It is not easy but it is an interesting idea. Succeed and you find imitators.

The second area where the UK could be important is in conservation. We have not been particularly good at it, or at least not as good as we look. Two things have flattered our performance. One was the switch from coal-fired electricity plants to gas-fired ones. This reduced carbon and other emissions because gas, while still having a carbon content, is cleaner than coal. The other was the switch of the balance of GDP from manufacturing to services. It takes more energy to make a car than it does to do an investment banking deal.

To keep improving our conservation/lower emission performance means much more attention to detail. We have to figure out effective ways of improving home insulation and new building standards.

A lot of this is simply applying global best practice so we should not kid ourselves that we are in any leadership role. There is however one area where what we are doing is interesting the rest of the world: road pricing.

The London congestion charge has not had any global imitators, at least yet. It is crude, raises very little net revenue and seems to have caused considerable economic damage. But were the UK to move to more general congestion charging, it might find imitators around the world. Copenhagen's careful reordering of car use, plus its other changes to the urban landscape, has created more vibrant city centre life and that has been widely imitated.

There are many aspects of British land use and transport policy that have been pretty catastrophic. As a result we are not much admired. But that is an opportunity as well as a challenge. We already have many of the problems, particularly in the crowded South-east and London, that the rest of the world is increasingly having to confront. This is one of the richest bits of the world but also one of the most congested. How do we use our experience of "rich congestion" to find lower-energy solutions?

Answer that question successfully and we will find Shanghai and Mumbai beating a path to our door.

We have to realise that the way the UK affects the rest of the world is through successful example. We have not been successful with our nuclear programme. In any case decisions about nuclear policy are very political and very national. But there are many other ways in which we can both improve our own performance and influence the world for the better. Let's focus on those.