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Newsletter 25th May 2007

-Energy white paper -New planning rules -Road charging

Energy white paper

The  energy white paper, published this week, seems to complete the government’s change of heart on nuclear power. Four years ago, this option was effectively ruled out of the equation. More recently, there have been more favourable noises, plus the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management’s report (which seems to chart an acceptable way forward via rewarding communities prepared to host waste facilities) and now a white paper which clearly makes the case for nuclear as an important part of the mix. This may have caused Alastair Darling some embarrassment when asked to explain the change of heart on the Today programme, but ultimately the government had no choice. This is a public acceptance that nuclear is the only currently viable base load technology to give a major reduction of carbon emissions.

Doubtless there will be criticism from green groups which are resolutely opposed to nuclear power. But we already have the legacy of radioactive waste from the first generation of power stations, and future generations will contribute comparatively little to this: we will not be creating a new problem. As for safety, the consequences of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – by far the most serious incidents in the history of nuclear stations – were far less drastic than we may have been led to believe. Certainly very many more coal miners have died (and continue to do so) than were affected by Chernobyl. And vastly more people suffered (and continue to suffer) from airborne pollution from burning wood or coal in the developing world than have been harmed by radioactivity. Nevertheless, we have to recognise the dread factors associated with nuclear: the extremely long half-lives of the waste products and the potentially deadly but invisible radiation itself. But, as with so many things, the reality is much less worrying than the perception.

The alternatives for power generation are not attractive. Current nuclear stations have to be replaced in some form after decommissioning. Wind power, whatever its proponents may say, cannot realistically provide more than a minor part of our power requirements, on an intermittent and unpredictable basis. Conventional generating capacity must be held on standby until needed, which is inefficient and at least partly offsets any gains from the wind power itself. It has many supporters, but also encounters intense opposition. Current plans for a massive wind farm on Lewis may prove a step to far for the electorate. Solar power is considerably more expensive and also intermittent, although more predictably so. The Severn tidal barrage, if ever built, will generate a very significant power output, but also have huge environmental impact.

Carbon sequestration is in its infancy, and carries an energy cost: more coal must be burnt for the same output. Micro-generation is simply not going to be a significant contributor to overall needs, even for the small number of people who are prepared to foot the installation bill. Ask David Cameron what effect his wind turbine has had on his electricity bills in a few months time: this is a prime example of gesture politics.

Energy saving, though an excellent idea in itself, is not going to save the output of several decommissioned power stations. We are left with a single alternative: nuclear fission. This may be a stop-gap, to be replaced by nuclear fusion or some highly efficient way to generate and store solar power. Hopefully we will invest in Combined Heat and Power plants where appropriate, make much greater use of biomass and continue to drive down the cost of solar power. But for the next few decades, we simply have no alternative to nuclear.

New planning rules

A proposed simplification of the planning rules was announced this week, partly as a precursor to the energy white paper. This will allow many homeowners to make modest changes to their houses – such as adding a conservatory – without the need to apply for planning permission as at present. This will please individuals, but the more important changes – which will certainly not please people living nearby –  relate to major developments (including nuclear power stations). While France seems to be able to plan and build its major infrastructure with little or no dissent or delay, similar projects in the UK can be bogged down for years in public enquiries.

It’s really about balance. Residents who may be affected by a proposal have a right to object, but the planning system currently allows long drawn-out battles fought by national lobbying organisations. Their objections are often to the very principle of the proposal, rather than its site or finer details.  Although the government should not be able just to force the building of anything without debate, the need for power generation or increasing capacity of an existing busy road or airport is arguably something which is of national interest and importance and should therefore take precedence over individual objections. The appropriate action is then surely to compensate those directly affected rather more generously than at present. This may be an additional cost, but it has to be offset against the direct costs and delay caused by the present system. It works in France. It could work here.

Road charging

The government has been busy in the last few days. It has also given the go-ahead for towns to bid for pilot road-pricing schemes. Manchester looks set to be where the next experiment will take place. The London congestion charge seems to have settled down, to a large extent. While not deterring too many motorists, it has made some difference to traffic flows and brings in a healthy amount of revenue to fund the expanded bus network.

Does that mean that it is easy and comfortable to travel in London? At peak times, far from it. Commuter trains are overcrowded, Tube services even more so. Buses can be more flexibly scheduled, but many are still full to capacity (and beyond). There simply does not seem to be a clean and simple way to stop people travelling, and the economics of road pricing are not a significant deterrent. As we have said before, people don’t choose to sit in traffic jams or crowded trains: they do so because they need to be in a certain place at a certain time.

Demand can be managed to some extent by price or by providing viable alternatives but, to the dismay of green campaigners, the vast majority of people are not going to give up their cars or find jobs closer to home. More radical solutions are needed: possibly active traffic control, use of double-decker trains on commuter routes or greater encouragement of tele-working; more probably, the solution lies in a mix of these plus others. Trying to price people off the roads is not the best option, but, being realistic, it is likely to come in as a way to fund other improvements. We can only hope that the government does not see this as a cure-all and take its collective eye off the broader issues.