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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(May 27, 2005) British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, takes up office again having presided over a masterful campaign, ably assisted by the nuclear lobby, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), esteemed scientists and various other interested parties, which has seen the dying nuclear power industry reinvented as would-be savior to a world desperate for easy solutions to the difficult and complicated issue of climate change.

(628.5693) WISE Amsterdam - Ever desperate to protect its political legacy and maintain/restore its (already tarnished) image, Tony Blair's government in its 2003 Energy White Paper left open the option of a possible return to the already failed technology of nuclear power, claiming that it would be irresponsible to exclude it from the mix when considering the best tools with which to combat the global warming.

As in the case of other difficult and unpopular decisions facing the UK government, the decision not to make any decision on excluding nuclear from the future energy mix was calculated to again show the British public how reasonable Blair is; how he never shies away from difficult issues and how he and his government always consider what is in the country's best interest whether it is popular or not. That was the message circulated by the government's luster mongers (aka spin doctors) upon the release of the White Paper and it is again being reiterated following the Labour party's marginal victory in the recent UK general elections.

In the run up to and during much of the general election campaign, the topic of the environment was largely ignored; the deceits over the Iraq war taking centre stage in most debates. But days before the UK was to go to the polls, the Green party issued an alert, suggesting that the government would open the door to new nuclear, ostensibly to combat climate change, if re-elected.

For several years now, nuclear power opponents have argued as to whether the nuclear power industry was actually in resurgence as it claimed or whether the talk of possible orders for whatever amazing, shiny new and improved third, fourth or fifth generation reactor design being peddled at that time was just that, talk. But in the past year, the industry in the UK has been given reason to hope and has, with a little help from friends in high places, managed the PR coup of the century. From zero to hero in just a year: that should earn someone a million pound bonus…

The nuclear lobby then struck PR gold when, presumably unprompted, the eminent environmentalist Professor James Lovelock - often described as the 'father' of the movement - gave an interview to The Independent in May 2004 in which he declared that nuclear energy was the only practical (and green!) answer to global warming and called for massive expansion immediately. This began a chain reaction that has allowed the government and nuclear supporters alike to dream of the day when nobody bats an eyelid at the thought of a NPP going up in the neighborhood. But this should remain that, a wet dream for the truly warped of mind. The usual New Labour tactics have been employed prior to and since the election. Super secret Whitehall documents have been leaked to newspapers and government advisors, who are usually shy and retiring types, have been forced out into the daylight to 'explain'. In one 'confidential' document seen by The Observer, the director general of energy policy at DTI advised that the decision on new nuclear needed to be made urgently and pointed out that it was "…generally easier to push ahead on controversial issues early in a new parliament". So there you go Tony.

It is being suggested that should the UK not build at least 10 new NPPs immediately, the country will be sent back into the dark ages of sewing by candlelight and other such nonsense. It was even reported that Blair believes that energy efficiency, and measures to promote/facilitate it, would not work in Britain. And pray why not?! Would it really be impossible to get people to use efficient light bulbs and ask them to get off the sofa to turn the television off? Probably not but imagine a government not even wanting to try! Would spending billions of more British pounds on technology and an industry that has, time and time again, shown itself to be incompetent, uneconomic, irresponsible, dangerous and a complete failure really be the best decision for Britain?

Maybe Tony will decide to ask the people, but most probably not. A recent opinion poll commissioned by the BBC program Newsnight showed that 52% of those asked said it was wrong for the government to consider nuclear energy as a source for the future compared to 39% who thought it was right. 57% also chose renewables as the most feasible energy sources to meet future demands while reducing CO2 emissions, 21% chose nuclear.

The government's chief scientist, Sir David King, was wheeled out to issue denials to speculations that nuclear would be making a rapid return and he did so, calling it premature. Is that New Labour speak for, yes but we will confirm it later? King also said that the UK would have to spend US$16 trillion on building new nuclear capacity in the next 25 years. Yes, 16 trillion. But then again the prime minister has said that approving new nuclear would depend on the economic viability of the plants and a solution for the waste problem. If this is true then we can all rest easy in the knowledge that, without some Enron-style creative accounting, no nuclear plant could ever be economically viable and no waste solution will ever materialize. However, given that recent history has proven that the British government is not averse to 'misrepresentation' on occasion, we should not rest at all.

The prime minister is also said to be considering the appointment of an independent commission to examine the case for new plants in the UK. If this is the same kind of 'independent' commission as those that have investigated other unsavory matters concerning government misdemeanors then, again, we should hold out no hope.

There are some signs though that any attempt to force this decision through would be contested by critics inside the cabinet as well as on the backbenches of parliament. Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, has signaled willingness to fight any plans to introduce new nuclear and critics predict a mass rebellion on the backbenches. There is also the behind-the-scenes fight between Beckett's Department of the Environment and the DTI, which would of course love to see new plants going up around the UK. Officials at DTI have long been committed to building new plants and in 2001 joined an international consortium to build the next generation of reactors. If this happens, billions would be invested in science and engineering in the UK, which could also explain why the likes of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) seem to be taking an increasing interest in all things nuclear. The New Statesman reported this week that the RAE even published a paper last year on suggesting that new plants could produce cheaper energy than coal. "Too cheap to meter…" really, again so soon?! They really need to get new material.

Trade and Industry secretary, Alan Johnson, during an interview with the Financial Times, suggested that the decision would be made this year whereas the prime minister is keener to 'correct' the impression that the decision has already been made. The possible timeline for how and when any decision will be taken remains unknown - until it 'leaks' from a 'secret' document no doubt.

References: New Statesman, 23 May 2005; RENEW newsletter, May/June 2005; Financial Times, 16 May 2005; The Guardian 4 & 10-12 May 2005; BBC News online, 10, 12 & 16 May 2005; AFP, May 12 2005; The Observer, May 8 2005; WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #621-622, "A back door comeback. Nuclear energy as a solution for climate change?"

Contact: WISE Amsterdam