“New nuclear power plant needed to keep lights on, say MPs” - so read one of many headlines last week reporting the Scottish Affairs Select Committee report on power generation. Only the report didn’t actually say that. It’s recommendations specifically avoided proposing any new nuclear plants to replace Torness and Hunterston B, due to close in the next decade or so. In fact, it said that any new plant would be rejected by the Scottish Executive.
You had to look pretty hard to find any references to nuclear power at all in this report. But the hidden hand of industry lobbying managed to made this rather confused and anodyne publication sound like a dire warning that renewable energy - wind wave etc - is for the birds. That if we want to save the planet, we need to return to atomic power - quick. It was duly reported by the media that nuclear was back on the agenda.
There is a fast-breeder quality to pro-nuclear propaganda. It seems to be generated spontaneously, as if from nowhere, based on no new material. The only change in the debate about nuclear energy is that there is no change. The economics of nuclear power still don’t stack up. There is still nowhere to put the waste; the existing plants continue to contaminate the environment; there are major unresolved safety problems; and the nuclear industry represents a major security threat in the age of international terrorism. Oh, and the Scottish Parliament will still reject any application for a new power plant on planning grounds.
However, there is a widespread perception - indeed, a certainty among many Labour politicians - that nuclear is inevitable. After the general election, we’re told, a new generation of nuclear power stations will happen. The unions want it, the party wants it and the environment demands it. With the reality of global warming now beyond reasonable doubt, we’re told, nuclear is the only way to avert climatic catastrophe. Environmentalists are just going to have to lump it.
Well, maybe. It would be irrational to reject nuclear power generation out of hand as a replacement for burning fossil fuels. However, there are cheaper alternatives, including insulation and renewable energy, like wind and wave power, which should surely be examined first in any audit of energy supply - as indeed the select committee says. Scotland has 25% of Europe’s renewable energy. There may be doubts about whether this can generate 40% of supply by 2020. But that is only if you accept that demand continues to increase without limit. Insulation programmes could reduce massively the amount of energy we consume .
Anyway, when it comes to expense, nuclear power is way off the scale. The new nuclear decommissioning agency, which is being set up this week <
The truth is that nuclear power is a ruinously expensive way of generating energy. Left to the market, there wouldn’t be another nuclear power station ever again because no private operator could cope with the cost of decomissioning. The civil nuclear generation industry would never have been developed in the first place had it not been for massive state subsidies during the cold war - largely because the military needed plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Plutonium is the most toxic material known - a quantity the size of a grapefruit would be enough to kill every man woman and child on earth. Plutonium doesn’t exist in the natural world and only comes through nuclear fission. And everyone wants some of it - the Israelies already have it as do the North Koreans.
This is why we are currently trying to stop Iran from developing its civil nuclear power programme - because the mad mullahs might use some of the fissile material for bombs. It is morally inconsistent to the point of dyslexia for countries like Britain to be ordering countries in the Middle East to close down their reactors when we are planning to open up more of them. But that’s only part of the problem.
In an age of international terrorism, rogue states and Islamic jihad, nuclear power is a liability. Torness nuclear power station, sitting on the coast at East Lothian, is a prime target for an al Quaeda plane bomb. It could irradiate much of the central belt of Scotland. Alarmist? Of course. But when we’re told that there are literally hundreds of terrorists in Britain already plotting an atrocity, you have to ask where they are likely to get the biggest bang for their terrorist buck.
And it’s not just the power plants that are vulnerable. The big problem with nuclear power is the lack of any deep storage solution. The stuff has to be stored in tanks on the ground or moved around the country by train to plants like Drigg in Cumberland. More targets. More contamination.
And of course, the one certainty of nuclear power is that contamination will happen. It will get out. It always does. We were told by the men in white coats that nuclear power was fail-safe. But the history of Dounreay has been one long broken promise.There have been explosions, leaks, accidents, mislaid isotopes - you name it over the last forty years. Countless radioactive particles have been spread around the beaches and rocks of Caithness, rendering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline uninhabitable for anyone without a noddy suit. It is the same in Sellafield and around all nuclear stations. You don’t need a Three Mile Island or a Chernobyl disaster - it is happening insidiously all the time.
So couldn’t we just dump the stuff in space? Well, in theory - but you would have to be awfully sure that it didn’t fall back to earth. There is enough of it loose already. Committees have been looking at underground storage for thirty years, but no one has found anywhere geologically stable enough. The truth is that the only safe place to store nuclear waste would be under the Houses of Parliament, because only then could you be absolutely sure that it would be looked after properly.
But people in supposedly ‘remote’ areas like Scotland aren’t going to be fooled again, which is one reason that the next generation of nuclear power stations is unlikely to be built here. The political opposition would be considerable. Yes, there are those, like Lord Sewell (of the motions) who argue that since nuclear power is a Westminster responsibility, the Scottish parliament would just have to lump it. But the key is not the plant, but the waste. Waste is a planning issue, and given the lack of any secure means of storage, planning consent will assuredly be refused.
So, forecasts of a new nuclear future for Scotland are premature. But that won’t prevent wishful thinking on the part of MPs with nuclear constituencies. Nor will it prevent the nuclear lobby - a group with considerable influence in Number Ten - from pressing its case. If Tony Blair is back with a three figure majority, and he decides that Britain needs new nuclear power stations as a mark of national virility, that would be a different matter. Forget the economics; forget the science. What Tony wants, Tony tends to get.