Understanding Wicks: a handy guide

Written for publication in January 2006.

On January 23rd. the Guardian ran a long interview with Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks. This is a handy guide to the interpretation of his remarks.

The Minster believes ‘there are virtually no practical obstacles to a new generation of nuclear power stations being built’ If there are no obstacles, why does the government need to take any decisions at all?

Anyway, what is the difference between ‘practical’ obstacles and those of another kind. It is certainly true that we know how to design and build nuclear power stations. There is definitely enough concrete, steel and other materials available to do so. And doubtless space to put them could be found somewhere. But this does not mean that there are not any political or policy obstacles to new nuclear build. Indeed, there is a vast array of such ‘obstacles’ which it is his task to overcome. 

Perhaps the Minister does not consider these obstacles to be ‘practical’. But if so, what is the point of asserting something that is too obvious to be worth stating. On the other hand if he does mean this vast array of problems to do with attracting investors, allocating pubic and private risk fairly, securing political and public acceptability, avoiding regulatory and planning oversight and actually delivering energy and climate security, he is being brave beyond measure.

And just what are the ‘practical’ obstacles that do remain to be solved? What problems lie hidden under the coy word ‘virtually’. 

We are also confidently assured that he is ‘adamant that no decision has yet been made.’ I have no doubt at all that the Minister is speaking the truth when he says this. The process of making decisions in government involves considerable writing round between the involved departments to acquire cross-government agreement. It is highly unlikely that any such correspondence yet exists.

This does not however mean that discussions have not taken place, minds been made up and consensus settled. Indeed, it is equally unlikely that this has not happened. It is very unwise of a government to consult on questions to which it does not already know the answers. There is no law of excluded middle in politics. It is perfectly possible for a statement to be true and untrue at the same time. In this case, I have no doubt that it is true to say that no decisions have been made on new nuclear power just as it would also be true to say that the Prime Minister has made up his mind on the issue. We have, of course, been here before on another issue.

The Minster was robust is asserting that it was ‘dead wrong to think that no financial framework could be found to encourage private-sector participation’. And he is right. Indeed, it is possible that a galaxy of financial frameworks could be found to do so. But no-one is proposing the converse. The issue is whether or not the particular financial framework that the government has in mind to achieve this objective will represent a good choice for the British people. This remains to be seen since the government has not yet set out the framework it proposes to use. When it does so it may well discover that there is quite an overlap between the practical and political obstacles to new nuclear build.

It is also undoubtedly true that there are a lot of ‘major companies’ willing to invest in atomic power. Again, no-one has suggested that there are not. But this willingness to invest is not unconditional. If it were, it would already be taking place because, as the Minister accurately claims elsewhere, there are no obstacles to them doing so. Except, that is, that they cannot yet see a way to make a satisfactory return on their capital. Hence the need for a financial framework to encourage them.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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