The nuclear industry was given the go-ahead to build a new generation of power stations yesterday. The Business Secretary John Hutton told the House of Commons that Britain needs new nuclear plants to secure future energy supplies and fight climate change. But more significant was what the minister skirted around in his statement.
Despite all the efforts of the industry to improve its image over the years, nuclear fission remains a uniquely dangerous technology. The risks of a Chernobyl-style meltdown may have receded, but there is still a significant hazard from nuclear waste, which remains active for tens of thousands of years.
Mr Hutton claimed that there will be no subsidies to the nuclear industry. But this is an empty promise. Even if public money is not needed to help them set up the plants, it will almost certainly be needed to dispose of the waste. Mr Hutton also neglected to mention that no other country has managed to run a nuclear industry without vast public expense.
All we are left with is the global warming case for going nuclear. And that simply does not stack up. Nuclear plants release less carbon dioxide than coal or natural gas power facilities, but it has been estimated that 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by just 4 per cent; and only then after 2025. Meanwhile, the nuclear push threatens to divert investment from renewable energy technology such as wind and wave, as well as decentralised power generation schemes. It will also distract official attention from the hugely neglected imperative of increasing energy efficiency. Every pound invested in conservation saves seven times as much carbon dioxide as one spent on nuclear power.
If the Government is so sure of the nuclear case, one wonders why it does not consult properly on the matter. The High Court ruled that the consultation element of the 2006 energy review, which first came out in favour of nuclear, was flawed after a legal challenge by Greenpeace. A second consultation was completed last October. But that too has been challenged. The Nuclear Consultation Working Group, made up of 17 academics and scientists (including some independent government advisers), argued last week that key questions in the latest consultation were designed to provide particular and limited answers. Issues such as uncertainty about nuclear fuel supply, radiation risk and health effects "were not consulted on in any meaningful way".
This is not the behaviour of ministers confident of a case. And this nuclear dash is not the behaviour of a Government with a firm grip on either energy policy or the challenge of climate change.