Blair paves the way for a comeback of nuclear power
By Anna Tomforde Jul 13, 2006, 12:34 GMT
London - Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose political legacy will forever be linked to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now also likely to go down in history as the modern British leader who made nuclear power fashionable again.
'Britain to enter a new nuclear age, whether you like it or not', said the Times headline Wednesday. 'Blair goes nuclear to plug energy gap', said the Financial Times, while the leftwing Guardian predicted a rocky road ahead for the new nuclear plans.
In its energy review earlier this week, the Labour government backed the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants to safeguard future energy needs and meet emission targets.
Without nuclear power, it argues, Britain will be dependent on natural gas for 55 per cent of its energy needs by 2020, compared with 38 per cent at present.
As most of these supplies would have to come from 'potentially unstable regions' such as the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and Russia, nuclear is the only option, the argument goes.
With North Sea oil stocks gradually being exhausted, the use of alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and tidal energy, is to be promoted to cover 20 per cent of energy needs by 2020, from a modest 4 per cent at present.
As the new nuclear reactors would have to be funded entirely by the private sector, the government has also announced a streamlining of planning regimes to speed up construction of the new plants from 2012.
The nuclear industry, including foreign firms such as Westinghouse from the US, France's EDF Energy and state-owned Areva, as well as Germany's RWE Npower, is going to look closely at the opportunities presented by the British decision, which is estimated to require investments of up to 20 billion pounds (36 billion dollars).
Energy executives say that more information is needed on issues such as the disposal of nuclear waste and the future of carbon emission trading before investment decisions can be made.
Nuclear energy currently provides 20 per cent of Britain's electricity supply but the share is calculated to drop to 7 per cent in the next two decades as old plants are decommissioned.
'Wishful thinking will not keep the lights on,' has become the government's latest buzz phrase.
However, the many opponents and critics of nuclear power, a large number of them Labour MP's, have not forgotten that only a few years ago Blair himself ranked among the opponents of nuclear power.
The 2003 energy White Paper described atomic energy as an 'unattractive option' and ruled out building new nuclear power stations.
While Blair's 'nuclear change of mind' has been welcomed by the atomic energy industry, the Prime Minister is unlikely to win over the environmentalist lobby and the 60 or so Labour MP's who have made their opposition clear in a parliamentary motion.
Powerful opposition is also coming from the Liberal Democrats, whose policy is to oppose nuclear power, specifically on the grounds it would crowd out investment in alternatives, while the Conservatives have advocated a revival of nuclear power only as a 'last resort.'
Critics say the government has rushed into a nuclear decision without obtaining the necessary public approval, or the correct final data for future energy needs.
A group of Labour ministers, including Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, are said to retain doubts over the policy although, crucially, Chancellor Gordon Brown supports the prime minister's view.
Meanwhile former Labour environment ministers Michael Meacher and Elliot Morley are leading Labour opposition from the back benches.
Meacher's name has recently been mentioned as a stalking horse candidate in a possible party vote to force a date for Blair's departure from Downing Street, expected sometime next year.
An opinion poll by the environmentalist Green Party showed this week that 87 per cent of Britons are opposed to the government's nuclear plans, and 66 per cent have said they will join protests against nuclear power.
'It will be a hard sell,' a government official admitted privately.© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur