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Challenging the ‘Energy Challenge’

“The Energy Challenge – Energy Review Report 2006” has now been presented to Parliament and is available to the public (at a cost of £22). As expected, it has generated (!) a great deal of interest, much of it centred on the failure to rule out nuclear power as a viable option, but there is a lot more to the report than this, and overall it is not a bad document. Considered as an Environmental Impact Assessment, it is fit for the purpose even if we don’t like the conclusions.

The Foreword, with its cheesy upbeat photo of Tony Blair, is followed by the Preface, featuring grimly realistic Alistair Darling. The main body of the report, however, is well-presented and appears to be both thorough and wide-ranging. The order of the chapters implies that the authors recognise that the basic challenge is reconciling rising expectations with diminishing resources. This cannot be achieved purely by increasing generating capacity; reduction in consumption is crucial. The report accepts that government must lead by example,

Uranium prices are set to climb

but doesn’t resist the temptation to trumpet the Government’s achievements in public education (You have your part to play). It is easy to be cynical about this, of course.

The unfortunate reality is that the UK is well-behind Germany, for instance, in the use of combined heat and power in urban areas and in decentralising energy generation, and the time required to catch up may not be available. Renewables are also insufficiently developed to take over in the short term. Therefore, a considerable part of the report is devoted to existing and new resources for energy generation, with a noticeable bias towards electricity rather than direct use of oil, gas and coal. All the discussion is predictably within the context of “the market” and its efficiency, and issues of security and reliability of supply are heavily stressed. Trends in fossil fuel extraction in the UK are likely to continue downwards, so imports will almost certainly increase.

Since it is indubitably true that current energy generation needs to be upgraded, it is fair enough to discuss nuclear power. The report is very clear that any new nuclear power stations would be “proposed, developed, constructed and operated” by the private sector, who would receive no help with decommissioning costs. This appears to be a very large buck that is being passed. Is this a way of making nuclear so unattractive it will never happen, without the political risk of forbidding it? Or is that wishful thinking?

Despite passing the buck, the report does assess the economic case for nuclear power, which depends on the predicted rise in gas prices actually taking place. In a cheap gas, expensive nuclear environment, the economic case collapses. Costs are plotted for the different technologies, with many assumptions about each type which are open to debate. It is recognised that uranium is a non-renewable resource, but there is much more optimism about uranium reserves than I have seen elsewhere, and there is a barely mention of the possibilities of disruption of supply. All uranium has to be imported (it is decades since there was a vague suggestion that Orkney might be a domestic source), and the current prominence of Kazakhstan as a producer should perhaps be as much a cause for concern as Russia’s position in the oil and

 
   
Solar Power

gas market. The report seems more interested in the benefits of increasing the number of countries on which we rely than in the nature of the regimes in these countries, despite the emphasis on security of supply for other fuels.

Even though “one of the internationally accepted principles of radiological protection is that the benefits of an activity giving rise to ionising radiation must outweigh any adverse health consequences”, safety issues refer only to Britain; I can find no mention of the health issues for uranium miners or inhabitants of the environs of mines. The discussion of waste disposal is superficial; it is convenient that the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is about to publish its final report, so no awkward conclusions need be drawn before then. Nevertheless, the report does say that “satisfactory arrangements” will need to be in place (primarily for dealing with the cost of decommissioning and waste) and this could also be seen as a disincentive for the private sector.

Having concluded that nuclear has a role to play, the report then discusses planning issues. The devolved Scottish planning system merits a few paragraphs, mostly devoted to proposed modernisation aimed at speeding up the process. It is acknowledged that consent for new nuclear power stations in Scotland would require local approval; it is crucial that we hold Jack McConnell to his word (eg in a recent article in the Big Issue) that there will be no decisions made behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, there is a current consultation about the policy framework for new nuclear build, with a deadline for responses of 31.10.06. It is not clear whether views would be welcomed from Scotland, but there is plenty in this document to inform our campaigning.

Saffron Fisk
Saffron Fisk is CND mermber who has a PhD in Isotope Geochemistry and Environmental Monitoring and works at the Scottish Universities Environmental Reasearch Centre.

Scottish CND
Meeting for trade union activists

 

Scottish CND
Meeting for trade union activists

Trident &
Defence Diversification

Invited speakers:
Kate Clark MP
Jackson Cullinane
Deputy Regional Secretary
Designate TGWU
Alan Mackinnon
Chair Scottish CND

Wednesday 6th September - 7pm
STUC, 333 Woodland Road, Glasgow



 

 
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