Yes minister, nuclear's best
Civil servants have played a damaging role in skewing UK policy away from renewables
Jeremy Leggett, The Guardian, Thursday January 3, 2008.
The government published its first energy white paper almost five years ago, when oil cost barely $30 a barrel. The result of a consultation with more than 60 energy firms, 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 review that preceded the white paper, I saw executives from nuclear companies laughed out of contention in debates about the economics of energy supply. But Department of Trade and Industry officials 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 how to execute the white paper plan in November 2002. By September 2003 the board's industry members, of which I was one, were already troubled by slow progress and issued a statement of concern. One warned me DTI officials would deliberately go slowly, to keep their hopes for nuclear alive; renewables would be teed up to fail. I didn't believe it at the time, but recently I have heard two of Tony Blair's senior colleagues confirm that the DTI has long suppressed renewables to make space for nuclear. The slow-motion UK treatment of renewables during the last 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 $30bn of new investment flowed into renewables globally, but very little came to the UK . Much of it went to Germany , where 200,000 jobs have been created since 2000 in industries that are now exporting globally.
Along the way the nuclearphiles have jumped the gun on their five-year review. Blair called for a second energy white paper, and by July 2006 the draft already backed a new generation of nuclear power plants. At that time, inspectors were reporting unexplained cracks in six reactor cores in the existing generation. British Energy, it seemed, did not fully understand why the cracking had occurred. The DTI authors of the new energy white paper and their champion in No 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 been unlawful. Another consultation began.
In March the EU agreed a target of 20% renewables in the energy mix; 27 leaders signed up, Blair among them. The EC costed the switch to renewables at €24bn to €31bn a year, assuming an oil price of $48 a barrel. At $78 there would be no additional cost. Before the year was out, oil almost hit $100.
Global investment in renewables firms accelerated still faster in 2007. Meanwhile growing numbers of experts warned that oil and gas were running out faster than expected. But in the UK , it was business as usual. In August the Guardian revealed that ministers were being briefed by officials to the effect that the UK couldn't come close to a 20% target. In a development worthy of Yes Minister, options for avoiding the 20% commitment included counting nuclear energy as renewable.
Gordon Brown is insisting that the 20% target stays. But how will he deliver it, when his government has some of the least effective programmes for renewable energy in the industrialised world? How can he deliver surrounded by civil servants intent on seeing a re-nuclearised Britain - almost at any cost?