Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Government Energy Review – Where’s the detail ?

After months of waiting, the government has finally published its review of Britain’s future energy needs. Alistair Darling presented the new policy in the House of Commons yesterday.

This has been universally presented as the government coming down on the side of nuclear power, and the hints, nudges and winks have now been replaced by a statement that “The government has concluded that new nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals.”

Note that word “could”.

Watching Alistair Darling’s speech I was struck, not by how much was said, but by how little.

Some 24 centuries ago, an Egyptian ruler who was disappointed by the small size of a vaunted reinforcement from his Spartan allies, is supposed to have commented

“Parturient montes, nascitur ridiculus mus.”

Or “Behold, the mountain has laboured, and has given birth to a ridiculous mouse.”

To call this energy review Blair’s “ridiculus mus” would be overstating the case, but it contains much less than we had been led to expect. Conservative spokesman Alan Duncan said of the statement that “It’s not Carbon-free, it’s Content-free” while David Heathcote-Amory said that “the limp and tentative language on nuclear power is a major disappointment.”

Views on nuclear power clearly go across party lines and will continue to do so.

The MP for Copeland made a fool of himself during the discussion in parliament, not for the first time. House of Commons rules allowed backbench MPs to ask one question each about the energy review. Unfortunately for Jamie Reed, he started off his remarks with some petty party-political point-scoring, which was worded in the form of a question about a suggested new slogan for the Conservative party. When he then attempted to ask his real question the Deputy Speaker cut him off on the grounds that he was allowed to ask one question and had already done so.

The Energy review has been interpreted as good news for West Cumbria on the grounds that if there are to be new nuclear power stations we have a chance of getting one here and therefore the work which goes with it. This view is not necessarily wrong, but it is certainly premature.

There has been a suggestion that the new generation of nuclear generators will consist of six “super plants” – but if so there are real doubts that the existing national grid will support an installation of that size at Calder Hall. If we want the enormous concentration of nuclear skill and expertise in West Cumbria to have an opportunity to take part in a new generation of nuclear plants, we need to get our act together and lobby for a solution which includes either a place for plants at up to 600 Megawatts or a substantial upgrade to the national grid – which would have to take into account the impact on the Lake District national park.

Is it possible that there will be a new nuclear power plant in West Cumbria ? Yes.

Can we take it for granted ? No.

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