Tough times for the forces of reaction

Two years ago, the ASA roundly condemned British Nuclear Fuels’ (BNFL’s) last advertising campaign: ‘The future of the environment is in safe hands’. It isn’t, ruled the ASA; or rather, BNFL could not substantiate the claim.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem with communicating nuclear energy benefits in the UK. A generation brought up on The China Syndrome, and its chilling real-life counterparts, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, are prepared to believe there is no chicanery to which the nuclear industry won’t descend in supporting an untenable reputation.

Yet here we are, in the opening stages of the Energy Review, whose very purpose – only two years after a nuclear future was very firmly rejected by government – seems to be the foisting of the nuclear option upon a highly sceptical public. What other interpretation could be placed on the need for another major review so soon?

In fact, it would be more accurate to depict the Energy Review’s timing as a tribute to the combined inability of government and the power industry to forecast the extraordinary escalation of global fossil-fuel prices over the past year; even though the exacerbating fact of the UK becoming a net importer of gas had long since been evident. In this version of events – cock-up rather than conspiracy – a fresh generation of nuclear power stations might seem a very reasonable tried-and-tested solution to an imminent energy shortfall, compared with the flakiness of trendy renewables.

Indeed, rationally, there has never been a more powerful moment to communicate the advantages of nuclear energy (though whether it is powerful enough is another question). No one can deny that nuclear power stations are ‘greener’ on carbon emissions than any current fossil-fuel alternative. Moreover, they proffer a kind of energy autarky compared with, say, gas – which is now increasingly piped from the steppes. True, there are heightened security issues (terrorism, principally) but the civil safety record of the UK’s advanced gas reactors (the more modern stations) is hard to fault.

The alternatives to supplying the energy deficit, by contrast, are hazily idealistic. Wind turbines may be good on carbon emissions, but they are inefficient and blight the landscape. Elsewhere, the stock of ‘clean coal’ is rising in the power industry: UK reserves are still huge and the cost of extraction is now much more competitive. But, oh dear, carbon sequestration – the process of scrubbing the carbon dioxide out – is years away from being economically viable.

All the same, the betting is that Blair will fudge this issue for all it’s worth. Why? Because the image of nuclear power is so bad in the UK that is hard to think of a convincing platform on which a nuclear-dominated energy policy could be sold to the public. For this, the industry has largely itself to blame: it has been secretive, arrogant, and in the case of accidents like Windscale and the BNFL fuel reprocessing fiasco, downright deceitful.

There cannot be many occasions when Tony Blair wishes he were Jacques Chirac. But this should be one. France is already nearly 80 per cent dependent on nuclear energy. How did French administrations manage to pull that one off?

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