Blair bombshell: nuclear back with a vengeance

Prime Minister Tony Blair opened the door to a new generation of nuclear power stations for Britain this week, as he unveiled the details of the Government's latest energy review.

An anti-nuclear protester outside the CBI conference. Picture courtesy of Greenpeace.

An anti-nuclear protester outside the CBI conference. Picture courtesy of Greenpeace.

Speaking at the CBI's annual conference Mr Blair told delegates that energy policy was back on the agenda "with a vengeance."

"Round the world you can sense feverish re-thinking. Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency", he said. "I can today announce that we have established a review of the UK's progress against the medium and long-term Energy White Paper goals. The Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks will be in the lead, with the aim of publishing a policy statement on energy in the early summer of 2006."

"It will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations," he said.

The focus on nuclear had been widely anticipated after the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor and the CBI both gave glowing endorsements last week (see related story).

As a result, Mr Blair's speech was delayed for roughly three-quarters of an hour as Greenpeace protestors climbed on to the roof of the Business Design Centre in Islington and unfurled a banner reading "Nuclear: Wrong Answer".

Unperturbed, the Prime Minister continued, saying that Britain had moved from being self-sufficient in gas to becoming an importer and that, "by around 2020, the UK is likely to have seen decommissioning of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30% of today's electricity supply."

And, in the clearest indication of his support for nuclear to take on the burden, Mr Blair said: "Some of this will be replaced by renewables but not all of it can."

Critics of nuclear energy said the review has the wrong focus entirely.

Guy Thompson, Director of Green Alliance said:
"Tony Blair is wrong to make nuclear power the focus of this energy review. It's only two years since the last review of energy policy put renewables and energy efficiency at the heart of the fight against climate change. It takes more than two years to transform the energy market and we need a period of stability to allow these technologies to deliver. Talk of reviving nuclear will undermine market confidence in renewable energy and puts achievement of our climate change targets in jeopardy."

In a statement the Green Alliance added that since the 2003 Energy White Paper the government "has introduced a raft of measures to deliver this vision. These need time to bed down and further political support - the government needs to consider the opportunity cost of investing this support and finance in new nuclear build. The mood-music about nuclear energy from the government will unsettle the energy market and the current package of measures will stall. This puts the achievement of the UK's climate change targets at risk."

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary accused Mr Blair of being "irresponsible" over the issue. Mr Baker said that Parliamentary answers from the DTI showed that:
  • they had made no assessment of the lifecycle carbon emissions of a nuclear fission plant;
  • they have undertaken no research to establish the full life cycle cost of nuclear fission; and that the DTI
  • has not made its own estimates of the construction costs of nuclear power facilities.

    "Nuclear fuel has just presented taxpayers with a £50bn bill to clear up some of the nuclear waste we already have, and there are vast amounts for which there is no solution in sight," Mr Baker said.

    "The suspicion must be that Tony Blair has already decided to advocate an increase in the use of nuclear power. This review will serve little purpose if the Prime Minister has already made up his mind. What is needed is to rule out an extension of nuclear power now. This will provide the certainty that the industry so desperately needs, and will allow us to focus on cleaner renewable energy."

    He also raised the fear that nuclear would use up the subsidies packages currently used for renewables, putting an end to their development by suddenly removing their main revenue stream.

    Despite protests against the nuclear option and Mr Blair's apparent determination to push ahead with it, Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks insists the review will remain neutral and that all options will be considered. His review team will also work closely with the Stern Review team who are looking at the economics of climate change at the request of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

    A formal consultation phase will start around the turn of the year and will be launched with a statement of current evidence on the 2003 White Paper goals and the government's plans for engagement with the public and stakeholders.
    The Review will assess progress against the four goals set by the 2003 Energy White Paper:
  • to put ourselves on a path to cut the UK's carbon dioxide emissions by some 60% by about 2050 with real progress by 2020;
  • to maintain the reliability of energy supplies;
  • to promote competitive markets in the UK and beyond, helping to raise the rate of sustainable economic growth and to improve our productivity; and
  • to ensure that every home is adequately and affordably heated.

    "The Review will explore all the options open to us, taking into account the important international context. There will inevitably be some difficult decisions and trade offs to be made in arriving at the right package of policy proposals. It is crucial that we stimulate a wide-ranging and informed debate and engage the public, business and industry throughout the process as well as academic, private sector, scientific, NGO and other experts," Mr Wicks said.

    David Hopkins

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