Smoke and mirrors in the nuclear debate

The Liberal Democrat’s energy spokesman, Chris Huhne, writes today in the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog about the government’s decision to back nuclear power. It’s a pretty insubstantial piece, and he appears to be playing the “I am greener than thou.” game, in competition with the Conservative leader, David Cameron.

This, is not, however, about Chris Huhne or the Liberal Democrat’s energy policy, but rather to highlight the words of a contributor in the discussion following Mr Huhne’s piece. “Oxford”, in his highly insightful comment, writes:

“You can’t have one without the other. 6 nuclear power stations is about right for delivering the critical mass for the university research base, technical staffing, plutonium and tritium manufacture etc.”

We have here someone commenting on the nuclear issue who appears to know what he’s talking about, and who has raised an important issue that others – on both sides of the nuclear fence – have failed to address.

What surprised me in today’s announcement of the government’s energy review, and the full report that I’ve only had time so far to skim, is that only 6 new nuclear plants are being discussed. We’ve had conflicting opinions expressed about the future of the UK’s existing reactors, but with the latest stories about structural weaknesses in reactor vessels, I think we must expect that operators will not attempt to continue running ageing plants beyond their originally planned lifetimes. That leaves the planned new build.

Six reactors? As our industry insider writes, 6 is about right for sustaining Britain’s research and strategic nuclear capabilities, but for large-scale energy generation? I hardly think so. A figure of 10 new reactors has been widely discussed as the minimum necessary to make a serious impact in terms of energy generation. And being slow on the uptake, it only now dawns on me why the Atomic Weapons Establishment, along with other nuclear agencies, have recently been undertaking a substantial recruitment drive. Smoke and mirrors, writes Oxford. Indeed.

But I still don’t get it. Why all the spin, if the government are not serious about nuclear as an important part of the energy mix? I would have thought that they could garner sufficient public and political support for such a limited nuclear programme using strategic arguments alone. I suppose I’m showing my political naïveté here, and there’s really a cunning plan behind all this. If that’s the case, would someone please explain it to me.