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Separate development is the wise option On nuclear energy at least

It’s a pity that Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond haven’t spoken since August, because if they had, they might have been able to avoid last week’s demeaning spat over the new generation of nuclear power stations. There is a perfectly rational and adult solution to this issue: While England reinvents the atom, why not let Scotland power ahead developing renewable energy? Let’s see which works out in the long run?

Yes, it is rocket science, and there are a lot of complex technical issues about whether renewables like wind and tidal can be developed fast enough to meet the so-called “energy gap”. But there is no doubt about Scotland’s potential. The government’s own figures show that we have 60 gigawatts of sustainable energy – 10 times peak demand and equivalent to three quarters of the UK’s entire electricity generating capacity. We have 25% of Europe’s wind and tidal energy reserves.

The obvious solution, surely, if England really is so keen on nuclear power is a duel fuel policy: England can be the world’s atomic hub, leading the field in new-age nukes, while Scotland becomes a world leader in the alternatives, like clean coal, carbon capture, micro-generation. Whatever happens, renewable energy is going to be one of the great global industries of the 21st Century. It would be irresponsible not to develop Scotland’s natural resources.

So, why is Westminster so resistant to separate development?
Why did the UK business minister, John Hutton, attack the Scottish government for being “irresponsible” and “playing politics” by opting out of the nuclear revival? Well, I suspect the reason is that, having bet the house on nuclear power, the Westminster government has to make sure that it doesn’t lose. It would look pretty stupid if, after covering England in nuclear dumps – sorry, above ground monitored storage repositories – Scotland shows that they weren’t really necessary. Alternative energy has to be marginalised so that it doesn’t prove ministers, and the nuclear lobby, wrong.

There’s a constitutional dimension too. The Prime Minister is a Scot, representing a Scottish seat, and doesn’t want to appear to be inflicting risk on England while leaving Scotland nuclear-free. Already, there are question about what happens to Scottish nuclear waste being sent to England – what you might call the “Waste Lothian Question”.

But the real problem, as always with nuclear power, is that the government has to get the nuclear numbers to fit, and that requires some quite heroic assumptions. The incredible thing about last week’s announcement new generation of up to ten nuclear power stations announced last week is that it is happened at all. Nowhere else in the world, not even Republican America, is there a programme as ambitious as this. Until recently, nuclear power has been regarded as a dead duck economically, of interest only to emerging nations like China and Iran with strategic ambitions.

No one has built a nuclear plant in Europe for over a decade and the highly-subsidised plant, Olkiluoto 3, in Finland is two years overdue and a billion over budget. Only four years ago, this Labour government’s own White Paper on energy ruled out nuclear power as uneconomic and irrelevant to tackling climate change. And the government’s Sustainable Development Commission has said that nuclear power would be an expensive and dangerous mistake.

The economics of nuclear power are perverse because of the risk – not just to the environment but to the financiers. The cost of decommissioning the reactors is so vast and imponderable that no commercial operator has ever been prepared to take it on without government subsidy. Which is why the government has had to step in, again, with public money, to make it worth their while.

Despite all its promises that the private sector would pay all the bills, the government has agreed to underwrite profits by effectively guaranteeing energy prices. In the long term is has agreed to cap the costs to private industry of decommissioning nuclear power stations and has said, in last week’s White Paper, that the state will shoulder the costs of “ensuring the protection of the public and the environment”. We know from the previous generation what that means, because the protection of the environment is hugely expensive. Look at Dounreay.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Agency is currently spending up to £100 bn on dismantling the last generation of nukes, and it still doesn’t have any long-term solution to the disposal of nuclear waste, except dumping it underground and hoping for the best. The new generation of nuclear power stations will be, we are assured, cheaper to run and will produce less waste. But that doesn’t help much, because the waste they do produce will be more concentrated and therefore more dangerous.

Moreover, there are new costs that the first generation didn’t have to worry about. Most nuclear stations are on low-lying coastal sites which are likely to become inundated as sea levels rise through climate change. This means an incalculable cost of building sea defences to keep the nukes dry. Needless to say, if any water gets in, then the plant goes boom.

And then there is the cost of the security operations that will be needed to guard the transport and storage of vastly increased quantities of nuclear wastes. And the cost of international proliferation, for countries like Iran can hardly be expected to end their nuclear programmes now. And the cost of the accidents, which will inevitably happen. You cannot eliminate human error, and one sure thing about radioactive material is that it always gets into the environment in the end. Just two years ago, a nuclear waste company, AEA Technology, was fined #250,000 for allowing highly toxic radiation to escape from a lorry-borne flask in the North of England.

Speaking personally, I would be happy to see a new generation of clean, carbon-free nuclear power stations producing electricity at low cost. But unfortunately, nuclear has never fulfilled its promise, on economics or safety, and there is no credible evidence that this new generation will be any different.

But who am I to dictate energy policy? If England wants to go nuclear that it its own affair, and the Scottish government has to accept it. However, what’s wrong with hedging our bets and putting some real effort into renewables in this small corner of Britain? Let’s see some real money going into sunrise technologies; into things like combined heat and power, and above all insulation. The vast majority of Co2 emissions result from transport and heating our homes.

This is not an easy option for the Scottish government. Alex Salmond has committed Scotland to cutting greenhouse gases by 80% in forty years, yet he is pressing ahead with transport policies based on fossil-fuel cars and airports. So why doesn’t Westminster call his bluff? If Gordon Brown is so confident that the lights will go out, without nuclear, why not demonstrate this in practice? Show that renewable energy is a nice idea but incompatible with economic growth.

Think of it as an epic technological experiment with Scotland acting as the control. That way England needn’t that it is being handed the toxic option. I’m sure English public opinion could be persuaded of the advantages of a dual fuel policy if politicians showed a lead. So, come on guys. Lift the phone.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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