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Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

UK energy review sham

THIS SUMMER the trade and industry minister, Alistair Darling, presented a review of UK energy needs. He argued that climate change and the need to provide secure cleaner energy were the big challenges we faced. One of the review’s key proposals though was to promote the long-term use of coal and gas to generate Britain’s energy needs, in the report’s words, "maximising exploitation of North Sea (oil and gas) reserves… and securing the long-term future of coal generation".

Since burning coal, oil and gas is the main cause of global warming it is ridiculous to claim that promoting their use is consistent with combating climate change. Facing two ways at once is not unusual for New Labour, but that the stakes are too high to be playing political games is highlighted by fresh evidence that global warming dangers are more imminent than scientists previously thought.

August’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science heard evidence that the speed at which the Greenland ice sheet is melting has risen three times in the past two years compared to the previous five, possibly leading to a so-called ‘feedback effect’ that will accelerate global warming. As the ice melts it exposes more seawater, which absorbs a greater amount of the sun’s energy than ice. (This occurs because ice is white and reflects back more of the sun’s rays than the dark seawater.) Thus a vicious circle is set up, whereby as more ice melts, a greater proportion of the sun’s heat is absorbed by the earth, leading to further global warming, which in turn causes more ice to melt, and so on.

Renewable energy sources, such as wind power, could begin to tackle this growing danger, but the energy review only pays lip-service to increasing renewable energy use. It proposes that renewables should meet 20% of total energy requirements, but gives few details of how this (completely inadequate) target will be achieved and is a clear step back from the 2003 energy white paper that gave a much more prominent role (although still inadequate) to renewable energy.

The ‘balanced’ façade provided by the references to renewables in the report is a cover to hide its main aim, which is to promote the use of nuclear energy. Press leaks and hints over the past two years have made it clear that Tony Blair was converted to the nuclear agenda a long time ago and set up this study to justify the new policy line. He thinks that because nuclear, despite its dangers, does not produce significant greenhouse gases, it is the cheapest option to fossil fuel burning. The firm contracted to compile public submissions to the ‘independent’ energy review was AEA Technology, formerly part of the Atomic Energy Authority before privatisation, whose name as the contractor was only revealed after a parliamentary question by Dai Davis, the independent ‘old Labour’ MP for Blaenau Gwent, forced it out of the government.

Apart from AEA Technology owning a nuclear waste business, senior executives and staff have close links to the Atomic Energy Authority and other parts of the nuclear industry, according to a report in The Observer on 6 August. It says that experts who made submissions felt that their evidence was underplayed and misrepresented, and that ministers only allowed twelve weeks for consultation. David Moorhouse, chief executive of Lloyds Register, which has analysed risks in the energy industry, was quoted as saying that he was worried about using a company "whose livelihood depended on nuclear up until their sale into private industry", and "while AEA may have given this its absolutely best and neutral approach, it doesn’t smell like that to the average man".

One of the most controversial aspects of energy provision related to nuclear power is the question of the disposal of the toxic waste produced in the power generation process. The waste is highly radioactive and will remain so for 100,000 years and, so far, no safe way of storing it for such a long period has been found. When reviewing energy options the question of toxic waste is crucial, mainly for safety reasons but also for the financial implications that arise over the cost of storage for millennia into the future. If the full cost of storage is included, the economics of nuclear power change dramatically compared to renewables. Very conveniently though, during Blair’s two year ‘national conversation’ that preceded the publication of the energy review, issues relating to nuclear waste storage were diverted to another committee that was to produce a separate report on the question. This meant that the energy review did not deal with two crucial aspects of the debate about energy provision which, moreover, are potentially damaging to the nuclear lobby.

It remains to be seen what the conclusions of the nuclear waste report will be, but the body that is responsible for it, the Committee for Radioactive Waste Management, has very close links to the nuclear industry according to the SourceWatch web site (www. Its three full-time programme staff are from the nuclear company Amec NNC, which has a vested interest in new nuclear build, describing itself on its website as "an international nuclear services company". Two of the committee’s members are consultants to Integrated Decision Management, a nuclear industry consultancy that in turn does work for the committee. It is doubtful that a committee with such connections will produce a report very critical of the nuclear industry and its operations regarding toxic waste storage.

One of the recommendations of the energy review is to change the system of planning reviews and licensing for new energy projects. Although few details are available at this stage, it is clear that planning restrictions and the public’s right to object will be severely curtailed. Blair clearly is worried that lengthy planning inquiries will block his agenda for the rapid introduction of nuclear power, since it took ten years to build the last nuclear power station in Britain at Sizewell, after local residents and environmental groups delayed the process by objecting strongly. It will be an attack on democratic rights if the right to challenge the construction of a nuclear power station is removed, particularly after the devastating experience of the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago.

The review sets the target of reducing the greenhouse gases that produce global warming by 60% of 1990 levels by 2050. Given the performance of the government in almost certainly failing to meet the Kyoto treaty target of only a 12% reduction (greenhouse gas emissions are currently rising fast, rather than falling), this target looks dubious. The only possible scenario in which this could happen is if there was a massive switch to nuclear power, which would bring in its wake a risk of a further Chernobyl-type disaster plus the problems of dealing with vast quantities of radioactive nuclear waste.

Pete Dickenson


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