Tilting at wind turbines

14 Jul 06
PETER RIDDELL | Tony Blair is not going quietly.

Tony Blair is not going quietly.

He is determined to show that, unlike previous third-term prime ministers, he is still ready, even eager, to take big long-term decisions affecting Britain’s future.

For Blair, the best proof of his continuing political vitality is the string of announcements made over the past year: expanding Patient Choice and diversity of provision in health; creating semi-independent trust schools in the current Education Bill; the plan for the long-term future of pensions; committing to replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent; and, above all, proposing far-reaching changes in energy policy.

Energy has moved to the centre of the political agenda, not only domestically, but also internationally, at summits of European leaders and the annual meetings of Group of Eight leaders.

So last Tuesday’s energy review was hardly a surprise. Blair had largely foreshadowed its main conclusions over the past few months, so much so that the trade and industry select committee complained that the prime minister had already made up his mind.

Blair has been unapologetic, almost glorying, in having changed his mind, only three years after the 2003 white paper was sceptical about nuclear power and left the question open, pending a broad public debate.

But now, as Blair told the liaison committee of the chairs of select committees, on July 4: ‘I will be absolutely open with you, I have changed my mind.’ His argument, much disputed by many in the green lobby, rests on a combination of new trends in the energy market and increased worries over climate change.

Energy prices have risen sharply in response to growing demand from China and India, while Europe has become increasingly dependent on supplies of oil and gas from the unstable Middle East and from a more assertive Russia.

Consequently, Blair concluded that: ‘It is difficult for me to see, on the basis of the evidence now, that we can have secure energy supplies or tackle climate change effectively without replacing our nuclear power stations.’

The government’s review covered much more than nuclear power. Much of its focus was on how to achieve Britain’s target of cutting carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. This is linked to concerns that the Britain’s gas imports will rise from 10% to 90% by 2020 unless action is taken. Over the same period, many nuclear power stations — currently meeting 19% of Britain’s energy needs — will have to be phased out. Without new plants, the nuclear share would fall to about 6% over the next 20 years.

Green campaigners argue that the solution lies in reducing carbon use through greater energy efficiency and a big expansion of renewables. The government half agrees and the review proposes a four-to-five-fold expansion of electricity generation from wind, solar and tidal sources.

The controversial half of the review is, of course, giving the

go-ahead for new nuclear power stations. Ministers argue that the economics of nuclear power are now much more positive than even a few years ago, while the new generation of power stations creates only a fraction of the waste of the older ones now facing decommissioning.

But, aware of the vast amounts of subsidy that the taxpayer has paid out to the nuclear industry over the past two decades, the review is careful to state that the number of plants must be determined by market forces and be financed and operated by the private sector.

Critics question the economics, as well as the safety aspects, while much depends on the attitudes of other European Union countries in establishing a stable and predictable price for carbon.

In political terms, the decision represents a classic attempt by Blair to seize the initiative. Crucially, he has been assured of the support of key members of the Cabinet, notably Gordon Brown and Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling. The Liberal Democrats are firmly opposed.

The review has put pressure on the Tories. David Cameron has tilted strongly in a green direction, notably by appointing Zac Goldsmith as joint head of the Tory task force on the environment. But many senior Tories broadly accept Blair’s case for nuclear power.

So while Cameron puts most emphasis on renewable energy, Alan Duncan, the party’s trade and industry spokesman, has said the Tories will not try to stop the construction of new nuclear power stations. In practice, the Conservative approach is very close to the government’s.

In short, another victory for Blair. He might be in his final months at Number 10, but he can still set the policy agenda.

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