Leading article: Nuclear power is a distraction

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The Independent Online

Remember that excruciating picture last autumn of the Prime Minister greeting Margaret Thatcher for tea at No 10? You can bet that Gordon Brown does. For that photo-call then hailed as a brilliant tactical coup by jubilant Brownites bent on destablising the Tory party is now increasingly seen as helping to turn the son of the manse's glorious summer into his winter of discontent, persuading the public, together with the on-off election, that the Prime Minister was as opportunistic as his predecessor. We don't know precisely what the pair discussed over their china cups, but Mr Brown is now set to revive one of the Iron Lady's most controversial, and least successful, policies and with similar effect.

Mrs Thatcher promised a massive expansion of nuclear power. Originally she wanted to build 10 plants, one a year. By the time she published her nuclear White Paper in 1981, this had come down to five, at an indefinite rate. In the end only one saw the light of day a full 15 years later at Sizewell. Plus a change. Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair before him, is taking us down the same dead end. This week he will publish his own nuclear White Paper, again hyped as the dawn of a new atomic age. Again, we were originally being promised 10 new reactors, again expectations are now being scaled down: ministers are now deeply reluctant to specify any number at all, insisting that they will leave it to private companies. And again it is unlikely that many will be built, unless the Prime Minister breaks his repeated undertaking to be reiterated by Business Secretary John Hutton this week not to subsidise them with public money.

Indeed conditions are far less propitious than a quarter of a century ago. Back then, power stations were built by a nationalised monopoly, run by nuclear enthusiasts, able to hide the costs of constructing reactors and with no competition. Now we have a liberalised, fiercely competitive energy market. No nuclear reactor has so far been built in such conditions, anywhere in the world. Investors know that they will have to lay out large sums both to construct the plant and to dispose of its waste. And they also know that they will receive no revenue at all for at least a decade, and can have no certainty, in a liberalised market, of what price they will get for their electricity at the end of it. Despite all the ministerial rhetoric about the Government having decided to "allow" the building of nuclear power stations, there is actually nothing stopping their construction. The silence of the sites speaks volumes. Of course it is possible that Mr Brown intends after all to subsidise the atom. Our revelation today of his nuclear waste sweetener invites suspicion.

Other arguments that ministers will advance this week are as flawed as their economics. We will be told that we need the atom to avoid dangerous dependency on overseas energy especially Russian gas. But analysis done for the Government's energy White Paper shows that by 2020 the earliest any new reactor could come online gas supplies will be more, not less secure, coming from a diversity of countries. And as most gas is used in industrial processes and heating homes, nuclear power which produces only electricity can do little to replace it. We will also be told that it is a major answer to climate change. If it were, it would be well worth accepting not just the environmental risks of the atom, but its dodgy economics too. But even building 10 reactors would only save 8 per cent of Britain's emissions of carbon dioxide, when we actually need to cut them by 10 times as much. Indeed, if the Government really wants to tackle the security and climate issues it should dramatically step up its lamentable efforts at saving energy, which has huge potential and seven times as much effect as nuclear power for every pound spent.

But we do need to keep the nuclear power option open. Climate change is so serious that we simply cannot afford to discard any low carbon technology. It would be far, far better to build a nuclear power station than to give the go-ahead to the coal-fired one planned for Kingsnorth in Kent. But neither should be the priority. The first task is to embark on a massive energy-saving programme energy. The next must be to boost renewables: the Government made a good start with its announcement last month of a massive increase in offshore windpower. Nuclear power may have a part to play. But giving it top billing, as Mr Hutton's officials want, will not only be self defeating, but give support to those critics who have long alleged that New Labour is merely Thatcherism in trousers.