The Times must be commended today for running with a Populus poll on public attitudes to nuclear energy. It shows that popular distrust of nuclear energy has if anything increased. Half of those polled believe that nuclear power is unsafe, and sixty percent think that new stations should not be built because of waste disposal risks.
The Times puts this down to "political dithering", complaining of the government's continuing failure to produce its long promised strategy for meeting Britain’s future energy. This, it says, is damaging British industry, while uncertainty about future supplies compounds already acute concern about soaring prices and the added burden of the Climate Change Levy. Further delays in reaching a decision, it adds, will affect not just industrial consumers, but households too.
The rub is that, immediately after the election, energy minister Alan Johnson was told by officials that policy must be decided before the summer recess if Britain was to avoid running short of energy as early as 2008. Yet, as with so many things, the recess is upon us, and still there is silence.
We seem to have heard this story before. Important issues these days (do I hear defence?) are simply not discussed, the main reason here appearing to be Labour’s extreme reluctance to say where it stands on nuclear power.
Time is running out. By 2020, Britain needs to generate up to 50 gigawatts of new capacity, both to meet rising demand and to replace two major energy sources: the coal-fired stations that will fall foul of the EU's Large Combustion Plant Directive; and 12 ageing nuclear stations that currently supply 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity.
Also, since the government is committed to reducing carbon emissions in 2020 to 20 per cent below 1990 levels, since these are currently rising rather than falling, and since nuclear power is the only emissions-free method of mass energy generation, new nuclear plants ought logically to be part of the difficult equation. But first, as The Times poll demonstrates, politically, public confidence about nuclear power must first be revived.
Reactor design has in fact greatly improved, with shut-down technology that makes a Chernobyl-style disaster impossible. That much we have discussed on this blog, pointing out the advantages of pebble bed technology. Waste remains a problem but it is not insurmountable.
Why then, asks The Times, do so many refuse to contemplate the building of new nuclear power stations? One answer, the survey suggests, is that the public does not trust either politicians or energy companies to tell them the truth. Part of that is down to a history of mistaken defensiveness on the part of the British nuclear industry, which to its credit is now considerably more candid. More importantly, so long as politicians fight shy of the topic, as Labour has done, so long will people suspect the worst.
But all the British public has to go by is an unsatisfactorily ambiguous 2003 White Paper that, without ruling out nuclear energy, led people to believe, mistakenly, that energy-saving combined with renewable energy could plug the yawing gap between supply and demand. This greatly overstates their potential. Instead of being challenged, and funded, to surmount cost and waste disposal problems, Britain's nuclear industry is being left to wither. This is against the national interest. And it does not, as The Times poll shows, win politicians any credit with the public.
The trouble is that, once again, we lack a credible opposition. Not only is Labour refusing to talk about the subject – so are the Conservatives, who have refused to put nuclear power on the agenda. As with the "Europe" question though, debate cannot be put off for ever. In this case, sooner rather than later, the lights will start going out. By then, of course, it will be too late.