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Nuclear rumblings from Blair again -- Wind supporters come forward

A storm of controversy has erupted in the wake of UK prime minister Tony Blair's pre-empting of his own government's energy review, in the process setting the scene for a new generation of nuclear power stations. He sweetened the pill by including renewables. Nuclear power, renewable energy and energy efficiency are "back on the agenda with a vengeance," he said last month.

The energy review is to be published in July. Having seen a "first cut" of its conclusions, Blair warned that unless Britain's existing ageing nuclear capacity is replaced, the country will miss its CO2 reduction targets and become over-dependent on imported gas. Failure to take long term decisions now will be a serious dereliction of duty, he said.

But Blair will have an uphill task convincing his own government of the need for nuclear. Former environment minister Elliot Morley warns against the cost. Ousted from his ministerial post in the prime minister's recent reshuffle, Morley told The Guardian newspaper that he had seen no official figures circulated in government on the true costs of nuclear. "If nuclear power was so great then you would have the private sector willing to invest in it," he said.

Morley added that the environment ministry, known as Defra, had been battling the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for more involvement in the review. Morley's boss Margaret Beck-ett, who is also a nuclear sceptic, was effectively put out of action on energy when she was moved in the reshuffle from her post heading Defra to the foreign office.

In Scotland former Scottish minister Sarah Boyack has tabled a motion in the Scottish parliament arguing against a new nuclear program. The case for new reactors has not been made, she says, and would add to the existing legacy of highly toxic nuclear waste and the huge public costs of decommissioning and storage. And London mayor Ken Living-stone says that to go back down the nuclear road would be "the great misjudgement of our generation." It would be an expensive and dangerous mistake, he says.

Debate rages

The debate even rages within the pages of right-wing press. While a Times leader embraces nuclear, an opinion piece by member of parliament Joan Ruddock argues within the newspaper that nuclear distorts the energy debate and steers policy away from renewables which are almost limitless in their potential, flexible and offer good security of supply.

Environmental groups reacted with outrage and dismay at Blair's tilting of the playing field. Friends of the Earth's Tony Juniper dubs the energy review "a sham" with Blair determined to see new nuclear built. "A series of pro-nuclear nods and winks have been given by the government for a number of months -- and opponents of nuclear power were removed from key ministerial posts a few weeks ago," he says.

From the Renewable Energy Association, Philip Wolfe warns that Blair risks downgrading the energy debate to a single issue. "He has made these comments when the government's own energy review has had barely a month to consider a mountain of submissions on these issues. This early announcement makes it look like a smoke-screen behind which to ditch the farsighted vision set out in the 2003 Energy White Paper." The white paper set targets and policies for renewables. The government must not be allowed to marginalise energy conservation and renewables in favour of an easy fix for a shortage of large decentralised generation, says Wolfe.

For its part, the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) chose to ignore Blair's comments on nuclear and instead welcomes his promise of a big push on renewables. "Whatever the government decides from the energy review, it is important that onshore wind is able to maintain its momentum at the forefront of renewable energy delivery," it says. "It is also critical to provide a new policy impetus to allow offshore wind to deliver on a massive scale."

No cost data

The cost of nuclear looks set to be its Achilles heel. According to national newspaper The Guardian, cabinet sources say the Treasury produced "eye-wateringly large" estimates. The cabinet is now demanding details of the cost of decommissioning, disposal of waste and capital costs of construction. A report by the government's independent watchdog the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) points to "a complete absence of recent, real-world data on the capital costs of reactors of the kinds likely to compete in the UK." In fact, none of this type have been built anywhere.

The SDC rejects nuclear and calls for the government to continue its 2003 Energy White Paper policy of increased energy efficiency and renewables to meet its CO2 reduction and security of supply aims. It points out that a new nuclear program would lock the UK into an inflexible centralised generating system. "Investments to develop the electricity networks to cope with more decentralised, small-scale technologies will be suppressed just as their potential is growing," it says.

Opinion survey

Only days after Blair showed his cards on nuclear, the DTI published the findings of its first ever national public opinion survey on development of renewable energy. Announcing the headline results of the poll, energy minister Malcolm Wicks last month said: "Despite all the hot air and scepticism from certain quarters, 85% of the general public support the use of renewable energy, 81% are in favour of wind power and just over three-fifths would be happy to live with five kilometres of a wind power development."

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