Published in The Guardian, on 30th November 2005.
First, a panic is whipped up. Then there are denials that a decision has been taken. The dodgy dossier comes next. Later, the long-made decision is announced. Then we discover there was no reason to panic. Then we find ourselves in a mess. No, not the Iraq war, but nuclear power.
The prime minister has launched an energy review, to be completed by next summer. But it seems he and his advisers have already decided what it will discover. We know this because Blair’s team have been saying so to anyone who would listen for weeks. Hence the need for the dodgy dossier – sorry, energy review – with which to confuse the public and browbeat Labour MPs.
As it happens, just such an exhaustive energy review is being conducted in the open by Parliament’s environmental audit committee. Its chairman, Peter Ainsworth, asks each witness what has changed since the energy white paper was published in 2003. The answer, from everyone but the nuclear industry, has been “nothing”.
Unfortunately, as with the Iraq war, the right answer for Blair will be the wrong answer for the country. New nuclear power stations cannot help us with either energy security or a stable climate.
More than half the gas we use is for heating and cooking in our homes. Nuclear power can do nothing to meet this need. We cannot build new nuclear power stations in time to replace our existing stations without bending the safety and environmental rules by which they are approved. Never mind, the rules of the game can be changed.
Nothing prevents anyone who wants to build a new nuclear power station from ordering one tomorrow. Indeed, ministers have repeatedly pointed this out. However, the private sector knows they are a very bad investment without considerable government support.
Since Gordon Brown will not pay for them, the government is planning to use stealth support. This will take many forms. First, the electricity market will be rigged for the next 30 years to guarantee a return for nuclear investors. To avoid making direct subsidies, the government will force consumers to pay more than they should for their electricity.
Next, the government will cap the investors’ liabilities for the cost of radioactive waste management and decommissioning. The taxpayer will then be forced to make up the shortfall.
There are very few things on which all protagonists agree. One is that there are no silver bullets. Another is that government is very bad at picking technology winners. So why is Blair, from the comfort of his sofa, trying to pick a winning silver bullet?