Leading article: Mr Blair, a fudge, and a flawed policy

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The Independent Online

As expected, yesterday's Energy Review contained a significant boost for the UK's nuclear energy industry. The Trade and Industry Secretary, Alistair Darling, announced in the House of Commons that a new generation of nuclear power stations will be built when the existing ones are decommissioned over the next two decades.

It is remarkable that only three years ago a White Paper on energy produced by this same Government stated that better efficiency and renewable forms of energy - not nuclear power - were the way ahead. So what has changed? We are told that a combination of a surge in oil prices, the rapid depletion of North Sea gas reserves, and a growing UK "energy gap" made a swift rethink necessary.

This is profoundly unconvincing. The Government knew long before it came to power that North Sea gas was running out. And it can hardly come as a surprise that demand for electricity is increasing, considering that few efforts have been made to encourage energy conservation. As for oil, is the Government really surprised that the invasion of an oil-rich country in the Middle East has pushed up global prices?

No, what has really changed is not the situation on the ground, but something rather less predictable: the Prime Minister's mind. Even before he ordered this review six months ago, it seems that Tony Blair had decided that an expansion in UK nuclear power would be part of his political legacy.

One thing we can be sure of is that Mr Blair did not come to this conclusion for the sake of an easy life. Most of the Labour Party remains staunchly anti-nuclear. The Liberal Democrats have always ruled it out. Even the traditionally nuclear-friendly Tories now argue that new power stations should be a "last resort". Mr Blair finds himself painted into an uncomfortable corner. He will have a difficult time getting any legislation in this area through the Commons. And, of course, he also forfeits the support of environmental pressure groups, who have never wavered in their hostility to nuclear power.

Yet it would be misleading to suggest that these pressures have not affected yesterday's review. In truth, the review is a typical Blairite fudge. First, we are told there will be no government subsidy for nuclear power, presumably to counter the accusation that the Government has surrendered to the nuclear lobbyists. The problem with this promise is that, if the Government took it seriously, no new nuclear plants would ever be built. It is unlikely that the private sector will finance such a high-risk form of investment without some form of state intervention. A laissez-faire approach also leaves open the question of what will happen to all the waste this new generation of nuclear plants will produce. The cost of disposing of fissile material safely could exceed £70bn by some estimates. The private sector would find it impossible to bear those sort of costs alone.

Second, yesterday's review also announced a token expansion of renewable energy programmes, in a transparent attempt to deflect the wrath of environmentalists. But the reality is that nuclear investment will inevitably squeeze out the funds that would be available for expanding wave, wind and solar power.

Mr Blair now has neither a feasible nuclear strategy, nor a proper renewable strategy. Nor will it do much to enhance the UK's security of supply, one of the fundamental objectives of this review. Add in doubts about the safety of the production process and the dangers of transporting fissile material around the country and we have a deeply unsatisfactory set of recommendations. Is this really the energy legacy Mr Blair wants?

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