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Energy Review looks to generate security

Darling of the nuclear industry

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The sound of champagne corks popping in the offices of nuclear power bosses rang around the world yesterday when, as expected, the UK government committed to a new generation of fission reactors.

Everyone is digesting the DTI Energy Review, and despite weighing in at a coma-inducing 213 pages, the verdict would seem to be that it is short on detail. The review lists many proposals, most of which are for further consultation. On nuclear, a consultation on a policy framework is the modest goal.

Buried in the accompanying press statement, after waxing lyrical about renewables, energy efficiency and climate change, is the real meat about the renewal of the nuclear power capability.

Trade and Industry secretary Alistair Darling said: "Our analysis suggests that, alongside other low carbon generating options, a new generation of nuclear power stations could make a contribution to reducing carbon emissions and reducing our reliance on imported energy."

The need to tackle the ageing nuclear grid, which has supplied around 20 per cent of the national energy requirement for decades, was brought into sharp relief recently when The Guardian uncovered details of cracks in reactors. As the plants are decommissioned, the contribution of nuclear is set to tumble to around five per cent by 2020.

The move to a pro-nuclear stance represents a fairly swift about-face from the government though, which in its 2003 energy review said the vast investment required by nuclear power stations made their economics unviable. The 2006 review says they could be financially sound based on "a range of plausible scenarios", but firmly puts responsibility for detailing those scenarios in the hands of the private sector.

Responding to parliamentary questions yesterday, Darling denied critics' claims there would be any subsidies for the new reactors. He told reporters: "We are looking at anyone coming forward to pay the full costs of planning, building, operating, decommissioning - the lot."

The review does hint the government will seek to lend a helping hand on getting planning consent for new plants, Darling commenting: "We have a responsibility to ensure that our planning system deals with investment proposals in an efficient and timely way."

The industry anticipates most people do not fancy having a 1000MW thermonuclear reactor in their backyard.

In fact, the government seems keen to move quickly on the whole nuclear issue, mooting a White Paper as soon as the turn of the year.

The DTI has at least satisfied business in the form of the CBI, whose director general Richard Lambert said: "Streamlining the planning process for new power infrastructure and establishing a long-term pricing mechanism for carbon will help give business confidence to invest in both."

Predictably, the other major Westminster parties and the green lobby have blasted the DTI's pro-nuclear stance. David Cameron said nuclear should be "a last resort" while the Lib Dems said it would cost taxpayers billions.

Representing scientists, the Royal Society has come out to criticise the review. Vice president Sir David Wallace said: "The energy review has failed to deliver the bold decisions that we have been waiting for. While the government has recognised the twin challenges of climate change and energy security, this review is weak on its commitment to renewable."

For all the climate change dressing-up which has surrounded the run up to the Energy Review's launch, we might suspect the real motivation behind its finding in favour of nuclear power was the second of those "twin challenges" - energy security. The depletion of North Sea oil and gas means Britain does not have fossil fuel self-sufficiency any more.

Energy security is sure to be top of the agenda at this weekend's G8 meeting in St Petersberg. With Russia's continuing energy spats with former Soviet nations, and the Bush administration's plans to bring an end to American reliance on oil imports, has Labour been guilty of catching an energy isolationist wave? ®

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