The Prime Minister has called for a “mature debate” on energy policy. If the antics of two Greenpeace activists yesterday are any indication, he may struggle to achieve that. This is, as he admitted, a “difficult and challenging” matter. Yet it is precisely because it is difficult and will be challenged in emotive terms, that the question must not be avoided. The “review” of Britain’s energy requirements, which should be completed by the summer, is likely to recommend the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations. The Prime Minister needs to start preparing now for the discussion and the distortions that will surely follow.
The case for nuclear power, when assessed coolly, is an impressive one. By 2020 coal and nuclear resources that are today responsible for more than 30 per cent of Britain’s energy needs will have been decommissioned. The country is committed to its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol and nuclear power constitutes cleaner technology. Wind power can only provide a very modest proportion of UK electricity. The nation is about to cease being broadly self-sufficient in its gas supply and will soon become a net importer.
The strategic importance of this last aspect has not been awarded enough consideration. Russia would, understandably from its position, be willing to supply much of Britain’s natural gas as it is seeking to do for several other European nations. But it would be naive to think that becoming so reliant on any one country for energy might not come at a political price at some point in the future. Britain must aspire to a balanced energy policy. A dash for Russian gas would not be balanced.
Technocratic reasoning will not, unfortunately, be enough for the Prime Minister. Opponents of nuclear power will cast their objections in apocalyptical language. Opinion poll results suggest that the public, if not doggedly hostile to nuclear power, is instinctively nervous. The same surveys show, ironically, that nuclear power is most popular in areas immediately surrounding the existing stations (which would also be the probable sites for new facilities) because the industry is viewed there as a source of employment. And nuclear power is less trusted further from the reactor, where nuclear power is often treated as an abstract “threat”.
Mr Blair would doubtless like to win this argument from within the Labour Party. This is optimistic. The combination of the section of the party that is habitually hostile to him, together with nervous MPs inclined to run a mile should their articulate middle-class constituents start crusading on this issue, will be more than enough to ensure that Labour is deeply divided. A forceful endorsement of the policy by Gordon Brown would help, but even this is unlikely to be decisive.
The Prime Minister should be willing to look and ask for support from other quarters. In his address at the Conservative Party conference, David Willetts, the Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, explicitly endorsed civil nuclear power. David Cameron, the odds-on favourite to become the new Leader of the Opposition next week, has made much in his campaign of his willingness to cheer ministers “when they are right”, even if that is not always electorally expedient for him. Mr Blair has, if belatedly, arrived at the right place on nuclear energy. The Tories, and others concerned with the vital economic interests of the country, should welcome this shift in policy.
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