Nuclear at its core

As the UK Energy Review launches this week, arguments on the future of power generation fly in opposite directions. Can the nuclear industry find a way to shed past safety issues and offer an alternative to supply shortages and reduced carbon emissions? asks Nathalie Kilby

The Greenpeace protest that greeted Tony Blair as he launched the UK Energy Review this week may just be an opening gambit from the environmental lobby if rumours that the Government will commission a new wave of nuclear power stations turn out to be true.

While the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are maintaining their “neutral” stance on nuclear by calling for an informed debate, the issue does at least give the industry’s supporters a chance to prove that nuclear supply is a viable alternative to dwindling gas stocks.

With the prospect of a harsh winter ahead, the outlook for the energy sector is stormy. Immediate concerns centre on supply shortages for commercial and domestic consumers, and on the fact that the UK is paying the highest wholesale gas prices in the world.

The Energy Review is too little, too late, for some who argue that supply shortages will herald a new nuclear age. Yet until recent weeks, few members of the public would have been aware of the “energy gap” staring the UK in the face. Falling North Sea gas supplies have seen the country become a net importer of gas for the first time, leaving it in a precarious situation. The imminent decommissioning of coal- and nuclear-fired generators will result, in the short-term at least, in reduced power generation – and an energy gap.

These issues, and the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions globally, mean the nuclear option has moved up the agenda. But one observer, who has worked close to the nuclear industry, says/ “The industry has not had much [government adviser] Professor David King, and environmentalists, including James Lovelock [who promotes the use of clean nuclear energy].”

The source says that part of the problem lies in the industry’s lack of credibility as British Nuclear Group – set up last year separately to BNFL as an international nuclear services provider – neared bankruptcy, curtailing any planned promotion. Another observer adds: “The nuclear industry needs to be able to tell a compelling tale of safety, but has been hampered by a long history of failing to address the safety issue, and of being secretive.”

Open up the debate

Branding experts agree. Futurebrand European chief executive officer Patrick Smith states: “Nuclear needs to shed its bunker mentality and make itself accessible. It must ensure there is an open, well-informed debate. The public want answers and the industry needs to be honest – consumers will welcome that.”

The industry argues that it has turned a corner in promoting nuclear supply as a real alternative source of power. British Energy, the UK’s largest supplier of electricity, generates about a fifth of the country’s power, some of it from nuclear stations. Spokesman John McNamara says: “We work very closely with the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) on a targeted approach to raising the profile of the industry. This involves encouraging support from high-profile, third-party advocates, including trusted academics, environmentalists, engineers and scientists.”

The NIA is the trade body that promotes the benefits of the nuclear industry and represents about 120 interests, from large energy suppliers to individuals. However, spokeswoman Ruth Stanway admits it has no marketing budget or formal marketing communications programme. “There are limited resources and no campaigns as such,” she says. “Individual companies run campaigns, but nothing like those seen in France, for instance.”

The reason for this, Stanway explains, is the politicisation of the nuclear industry. “Flashy campaigns promoting nuclear would be unwelcome in the UK, not least because BNFL is government-owned,” she says.

She may have a point. In the 1990s, BNFL was criticised for lavishing taxpayers’ money on flashy ad campaigns. In 2003, it was slapped down by the Advertising Standards Authority for a campaign that boasted “The future of the environment is in safe hands”. The watchdog ruled BNFL could not substantiate the claim.

Whether the green lobby likes it or not, the debate over reducing carbon emissions has nuclear at its core, and Blair is not shying away from this fact. But Friends of the Earth (FoE) is concerned that the debate has been hijacked, with nuclear power generation being cynically promoted as a key way to tackling climate change. The charity says the Government “must pave the way for clean, safe alternatives to meet Britain’s energy needs, rather than rubber stamp a new generation of nuclear power stations”.

Play it clean and safe

FoE director Tony Juniper says: “The UK can meet its targets for tackling climate change and maintain fuel security by using clean, safe alternatives that are already available. But these [alternatives] have so far been underplayed by the Prime Minister, who has fallen for the nuclear industry’s slick PR campaign. The Energy Review must cut through this spin, promote the clean, safe measures we know will meet our energy needs and show that nuclear power is unnecessary, as well as unsafe and uneconomic.”

Others argue that groups such as FoE make the situation worse, and the debate on future power generation should focus on a “balanced mix” – clean fossil fuels, renewable and nuclear – as a single type of fuel generation could not be sustainable or economic. The energy sector appears to be fighting from opposite corners: opting for renewables only, or upping the nuclear ante.

The Confederation for British Industry (CBI) argues that the Government is not being quick enough and needs to take urgent action to prevent industrial supply shortages, which would lead to job losses. Comments from energy minister Malcolm Wicks that the UK is “awash with gas” and that the CBI has exaggerated the situation have only served to exacerbate the conflict.

Lack of a coherent voice

Meanwhile, the public sees the Government, energy generators and suppliers scrap about solutions, while prices spiral out of control and companies turn their fire on each other’s tariffs.

The arguments highlight the need for a coherent voice for the energy sector. One observer says: “The nuclear arguments centre on security of supply, protection against the threat of terrorism and reduced carbon emissions. If the industry cannot decide on a balanced policy and how to market it, how can it expect consumers to believe power supply is guaranteed and safe?”

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