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February 09, 2008

Labour's Nuclear Legacy

On January 10th 2008, the government declared its support for anew generation of nuclear power stations to be built across the UK. Theannouncement was made by Business Secretary John Hutton, who argued thatnuclear power provides a “safe and secure” way to meet Britain’s energydemands, whilst helping to reduce the volume of greenhouse gases released intothe atmosphere.

Hutton’s announcement marked a further twist in what hasbeen a rollercoaster ride for Labour since it came to power. In 1997, TonyBlair’s manifesto made a bold commitment to the promotion of “cleaner, moreefficient energy use and production, including a new and strong drive todevelop renewable energy resources.” Labour claimed to see “no economic case”for the construction of new nuclear power stations, conveying an Old Labourpolicy in language more acceptable to modern Britain.

Six years later, the government reaffirmed itsnuclear-scepticism, referring to the technology as an “unattractive option.”This position seemed to be vindicated in the months that followed. In 2004, theEuropean Commission took legal action against the UK over the handling ofnuclear waste, and this was compounded by a leak of highly radioactive materialat the Sellafield plant the following year. Labour’s scepticism, it seemed, waswell placed.

But since then, and despite these setbacks, this mostcontroversial of technologies has enjoyed a steady revival in the UK. In 2006,Blair (backed up by Chief Scientist Sir David King) told business leaders thatnuclear power was back “with a vengeance”. It was now the government’s beliefthat times had changed, and any sensible energy policy could not exclude thenuclear option. Since then the Prime Minister has changed, but the messageremains the same: nuclear power is the prudent choice.

The case for renewing the UK’s nuclear capacity to fill theemerging ‘energy gap’ is made from a number of angles. It provides a largeamount of power with minimal carbon emissions, so it’s climate-friendly. It’s aproven technology that can be produced safely, and business groups are stronglyin favour. It is also argued that because the uranium can be sourced fromfriendly states such as Australia, it makes sense from a strategic point ofview.

On closer inspection, these arguments are somewhatunconvincing. First, the new power stations will not be functioning in time toclose the gap between declining output and rising demand for energy. Second, asgreen campaigners point out, the impact on greenhouse gas emissions will amountto a 4% cut after 2025, which appears to many to be too little, too late.Third, the Sustainable Development Commission has repeatedly highlighted theunresolved issue of disposal of radioactive waste, branding the government’smove “totally irresponsible.” Finally, it is argued that a focus on nuclearpower diverts attention away from far more attractive, long-term solutions toenergy security and climate change.

This last point is particularly significant as an indicatorof the government’s worrying reluctance to make bold decisions about thecountry’s future. There is widespread consensus that we need to use lessenergy, and move away from a reliance on unsustainable sources. Nuclear energyis seen as the easy fix, allowing us to continue as we are without anyconcerted effort to tackle the real problems. Despite its efforts to convinceus otherwise, Labour’s focus on nuclear energy at the expense of lesswell-established alternatives does not constitute a bold vision of the future.

This is a missed opportunity. By allowing investment to flowto nuclear power, other renewable technologies (competing in the same market)are neglected. Sustainable resources will continue to be viewed as nothing morethan a ‘top-up’ mechanism, and all the while society must continue to deal withthe huge costs of nuclear power. Although Labour’s new energy bill willincrease investment in some renewable forms of energy production (and this isat least a positive trend), this does not constitute the much-needed ‘strongdrive’ that was promised in 1997.

Whether or not you agree that the government’s gradualu-turn on the nuclear issue is the right decision or not, it is hard to denythat the manner in which it has reached this conclusion is a depressingindication of Labour’s disregard for the democratic process. Last month’sannouncement would have been made a few months earlier, were it not for theHigh Court’s decision to uphold a complaint by Greenpeace regarding thegovernment’s energy review. Labelled a ‘sham’ by its critics, the court agreedthat the consultation on nuclear power had been unfair, misleading and “legallyflawed”.

“The announcement highlights exactly how not to approachnational policy setting,” says Robert Upton, of the Royal Town PlanningInstitute. “[The government] has failed to demonstrate alternative options andwhy nuclear is the most effective way forward.” Indeed, a recent poll by IpsosMORI indicates that many people still need convincing: only 41% believed thatnuclear power should be a major contributor to the nation’s energy in thefuture, as opposed to 81% support for renewables.

Even if the nuclear route is the right one, the government hasmade no effort to put its case forward, or to provide adequate responses tolegitimate concerns put forward by a wide range of groups. Regardless of thecontroversy surrounding nuclear power, this lack of respect for citizens is aworrying state of affairs. As such, Labour’s energy policy tells us much about thestate of the government today. Not only has it failed to think big and deliverits promise of a “strong drive” towards renewable energy, it has shown that itis scared of discussion and debate. Once the party of bold thinking and freshideas, Labour is becoming increasingly conservative, arrogant, and cowardly. 

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  • An excellent blog Simon. I am looking forward to seeing 'Outfoxed' quite a lot now. Hope you keep th… by on this entry

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