Jeremy Leggett 22/06/2008
The Government wilfully suppressed renewables to make space for nuclear to be reborn, argues Jeremy Leggett
The Government released its first energy white paper almost five years ago, when oil was barely $30 a barrel. The result of a thorough consultation with more than 60 energy companies, it called for deep carbon emissions cuts by 2050, to be achieved primarily by a massive programme of renewable and efficient energy mobilisation. Nuclear energy barely survived the consultation. During the Strategic Energy Review that preceded the white paper, I saw executives from nuclear companies literally laughed out of contention during debates about the economics of future energy supply. But senior officials at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) fought a rearguard action. Nuclear was granted a place on the back burner, to be reviewed after five years.
The DTI set up a Renewables Advisory Board to advise ministers on how to execute the white-paper plan in November 2002. I was invited to join it, and at the time I was encouraged. Twelve renewable industry executives joined senior officials from all relevant ministries on the board. There was a sense that we were there to make things happen fast: to help unlock doors. But by September 2003, the industry members of the board were troubled by slow progress and issued a statement of concern. In particular, we were worried that the short tenure of the Renewables Obligation was putting off investment in wind. Faced with this rebellion by its industry advisors, the Government extended the Renewables Obligation. But other doors were proving very difficult to open, notably an early recommendation by industry that government go out and fight a strong hearts-and-minds communication campaign to persuade the public that we needed a strong mix of fast-growing renewables markets, and why.
A fellow member of the board warned me that DTI officials were deliberately going slowly, and would continue to do so, aiming to keep their hopes for nuclear alive. Renewables, he feared, would be teed up to fail. I didn’t believe it at the time. But recently I heard two of Tony Blair’s senior colleagues confirm the DTI has long suppressed renewables to make space for nuclear. The slow-motion treatment of renewables that I have witnessed in the UK during the past five years, while renewables markets abroad have grown explosively, now makes a sickening kind of sense.
In 2004, oil hit $50 for the first time. New fears about energy security meant more than $30 billion of new investment flowed into renewables globally. Very little came to the UK. Much of it went to Germany, where the Germans have created more than 200,000 new jobs since 2000 in industries now exporting globally. UK plc meanwhile has been starved of opportunities both to create new jobs and compete in new global export markets.
Along the way, the nuclearphiles have jumped the gun on their five-year review. Tony Blair called for a second energy white paper, and by July 2006 the draft already backed a new generation of British nuclear power plants. At that time, nuclear inspectors were reporting unexplained cracks in six reactor cores in the existing generation. British Energy, it seemed, did not know the extent of the damage in the reactors, could not monitor their deterioration and didn’t fully understand why the cracking had occurred. The DTI authors of the energy white paper, and their champion in Number 10, were undeterred.
Greenpeace challenged the legality of the second white paper process and in February 2007 the High Court ruled that the Government’s review had indeed been unlawful. Another consultation began. Another year had been lost.
In March, Europe agreed a union-wide target of 20 per cent renewables in the energy mix. Twenty-seven leaders signed up, Blair among them. As a result of this and other market-building initiatives, global investment in renewables companies accelerated still faster in 2007. Share prices in renewables companies soared far ahead of normal stocks, while growing numbers of experts warned oil and gas were depleting faster than expected. But in the UK it was business as usual. In August, the Guardian revealed ministers were being briefed by DTI officials (now the Department of Business and Regulatory Reform) that the UK couldn’t come close to a 20 per cent target. In a development beyond even the script of Yes Minister, options for wriggling out of the 20 per cent commitment included counting nuclear energy as renewable energy.
No doubt shamed by all this, Gordon Brown held the line, and is currently insisting the UK plays ball with the EU’s 20 per cent target. But how will he deliver it, when his government has some of the least effective market-enablement programmes for renewable energy in the industrialised world? How, surrounded by civil servants intent on seeing a re-nuclearised Britain almost at any cost?
One of those most instrumental in engineering the nuclear renaissance was Blair’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. People present in the crucial cabinet meeting where the 2003 energy white paper was finalised have described to me how King and other DTI officials stopped ministers shelving nuclear completely. In a Guardian interview on 12 January, King speaks with evident pride about how John Prescott became furious to the point almost of violence.
King went further in the interview and in his forthcoming books, labelling greens Luddites harming the fight against global warming. Many ‘want to get away from all the technological gizmos and developments of the 20th century,’ he professes.
Many greens I know are keen to drop 20th-century technologies, but only in that we are rather keen to progress to the technologies of the 21st century. The technologies of the present century look set to be very different from the technologies of the last, if you consider where energy investors prefer to put their money. The vast majority of venture capital investment in energy, and some of the most successful investments on stock exchanges in 2007, went to renewable and efficient technologies, and these offer at least a fighting chance of solving our energy problems.
Nuclear is one of those 20th-century technologies society has tried and found wanting. We can’t build it fast enough to make a difference either to our clear-and-present climate change problem, or our fast-emerging energy security problem. Even if we could, we haven’t found a way to deal with its hideous wastes after half a century of effort. We can’t afford it without endless blank-cheque subsidies, as opposed to the short-term, fixed-amount subsidies – or their policy equivalents – that renewables need in order to accelerate into mass markets. We haven’t found a way to stop the people that run the industry from releasing a stream of lies, falsified documents, accident- and near-miss cover-ups, and consistent, huge and almost universal cost underestimates. If we plough ahead with nuclear power regardless, we face the fact that the separation between civil and weapons programmes is wafer-thin, and so effectively issue a licence to the rest of the world to proliferate nuclear weapons. Retired nuclear bomb designers have a tendency to profess that if and when civil nuclear programmes are resurrected on any scale, it is only a matter of time before the terrorists make it into our cities with suitcase bombs. Finally, if we build a new generation of nuclear reactors, by the Government’s own admission they would need to be on existing sites: on the coast. The same government warns us, via its lead role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are at risk of melting, which would lift global sea level many metres. Whither Dungeness then, a site where 600 tonnes of shingle already has to be dumped daily to keep the sea at bay? Some 20th-century technologies we do need to get away from. Nuclear power is one.
The book King has written to vent his rage against the greens, we are told, ends with a map of the world on which is superimposed six tiny squares. If all the light falling on those squares could be harvested, King explains, all the world’s energy needs could be met. Indeed. This remarkable fact is the product of a nuclear reactor. That reactor is more than 90 million miles from our planet, and it is called the Sun. The power it could in principle generate within those tiny squares is called solar power. David King was until recently a lead player in a government that has acted for years as though it wants to slowly strangle any prospect of solar power in Britain.
Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury and SolarAid, and author of The Carbon War and Half Gone. This article is an extended version of some of his writing on nuclear power and renewables in the Guardian