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UK.gov New Year resolution: must build nuke powerplants

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British ministers will approve plans for a new generation of UK nuclear power plants in the new year, according to a report in the Independent newspaper.

The broadsheet quotes a "senior source" in the new UK gov Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR*) as saying that Gordon Brown's first cabinet meeting of 2008 will clear the way for new nuclear stations next week, with an announcement to Parliament on 7 January.

"Given the circumstances we will be facing over the coming years," the source said, "it is inconceivable that we should prevent nuclear from being part of our energy mix."

The circumstances in question are those of declining North Sea oil and gas supplies and the closure of ageing Brit nuclear stations, set against rising UK energy demands. In the absence of government intervention, the existing posture would render Britain more and more dependent on fuel imported from sources under unfriendly Russian control.

Orthodox environmentalists such as Greenpeace (and the Independent editorial team) are dead set against any new nuclear generating capacity, however, saying that it is too dangerous and expensive. (In the UK, anyway; French electricity is already 80 per cent nuclear.) The Greenpeace strategy calls for heavy brakes on energy use, and the building of renewable power sources such as wind, tide and solar to reduce the amount of fuel used by a principally fossil-powered national grid. (It must be assumed that there will be windless, cloudy, slackwater conditions on occasion: thus any wind-tide-solar augmented system requires something else - fossil, nuclear, or perhaps one day geothermal - able to take up the full load. Existing renewable tech slows down fossil use rather than providing an alternative to it.)

Many environmental activists have in recent times accepted that the human race actually needs a lot more power if any serious proportion of it is to live in decent circumstances, and thus that energy demand cannot be reduced or even seriously slowed down in growth.

A few hundred million Westerners switching their TVs off standby etc isn't going to free up energy to heat bathwater, cook food, power industries and build infrastructure for billions of disadvantaged Third Worlders. Staying at existing or only slightly-increased levels of energy supply while distributing resources more fairly would up most people's living standards by a few per cent at best and plunge Westerners down almost to Third-World levels, so such a plan will be hard to sell to both groups.

Given widespread concern about fossil carbon emissions - not to mention worries about fossil fuel supplies eventually running out - this has led some influential environmentalists to see nuclear power as the only way ahead. Such thinkers include James Lovelock of Gaia fame, Friends of the Earth director Hugh Montefiore, and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore.

However, Moore's erstwhile Greenpeace colleagues have already held up any UK decision on fresh nuclear powerplants by legal action claiming that government consultations had been loaded in favour of allowing some nuclear development to proceed. A judge agreed, and according to the Indy, Greenpeace is confident that it can employ the same tactics again.

The broadsheet predicts that the imminent ministerial announcement will be quickly bogged down in fresh Greenpeace lawsuits and a Labour backbench revolt.®

*It seems to be taken as a given that regulatory reform is a permanent, never-ending task; not something that can ever be completed successfully. Or, alternatively, that UK government departments and ministries now have a lifespan of one or two reshuffles at most.

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