Nuclear power's future may be short-term; its legacy of waste will be long-term.
Twenty-five years ago, it was a proud British boast that this country generated more electricity from nuclear power than any other in the world. British nuclear power technology, it was claimed, would dominate world markets. Soon power would become cheap, the cost of electricity would scarcely be worth metering.
That may have been the dream in the late '60s. Today the world is awash with cheap power, particularly gas, and the cost of nuclear power looks uneconomic. The oil producers, like the miners, are a spent force. The Chernobyl disaster has left the public deeply suspicious about nuclear safety. Outside France and Japan, no western industrialised country is developing its nuclear capacity.
In 1989 the City summed up the widespread aversion to nuclear power, telling the then energy secretary, John Wakeham, that electricity privatisation would flop if he tried to sell the nuclear business as well. Forced to give way, Wakeham promised a government review of nuclear power. What may have seemed a diplomatic gesture at the time has left the Government cornered. A review promises nothing but trouble. Any judgment in favour will be attacked by the environmental lobby; any decision against will bring anger from John Collier, the chairman of Nuclear Electric, and his colleagues. A fudge will land the Government under fire from both sides.
It was only after repeated promises that the review would be carried out had failed to turn into action that the go-ahead finally came in May. At the DTI Michael Heseltine is said to have wanted to limit it to the issue of privatisation. At the Department of the Environment John Gummer, who champions nuclear power because it would cut down fossil fuel pollution, wants to examine sensitive environmental and safety issues. Though the review will look at privatisation it may be academic. Ministers have already ruled out any move before the next election.
Meanwhile Nuclear Electric continues to lobby energetically. Collier wants to build more stations at Sizewell in Suffolk to replace the retiring, first-generation Magnox reactors, which account for six of Nuclear Electric's 11 working stations. At first sight he appears to have a good case. The company is being run in a more commercial manner, nuclear's share of British electricity generation has risen from 17% to 26%, and the new Sizewell station waiting to come on line was built within schedule. Future construction, he claims, should benefit from the Sizewell experience, making generation costs competitive.
Collier is determined to fight his corner. When a recent academic study challenged Nuclear Electric's assumptions about the cost of decommissioning the Magnox reactors, he rebutted it, claiming the cost had been provided for. But is there a case for more new stations? Two factors could influence the Government in favour of nuclear: one is an assumption that power supplies are likely to become scarce; the second is that nuclear would help overcome global warming by cutting down on fossil fuel consumption. However the evidence of both counts is unlikely to persuade anyone to rush out and spend several million pounds on new reactors.
A recent study on nuclear power, Prospects and Strategies for Nuclear Power, from the Royal Institute of International Affair's energy and environmental programme, concludes, after careful analysis and taking into account the notorious inaccuracy of energy forecasts, that fossil fuel resources and hydro potential seem ample to meet demand for electricity generation for the next century and possibly well beyond.
The study concludes that the only situation where the nuclear option could look attractive is as a help in curbing global warming. Even here, the study says, the expansion of renewable energy resources, such as wind and wave power, could provide an answer. But there is some risk to supplies, says the author, if renewable potential has been over-exaggerated.
On cost grounds, nuclear doesn't even get into the game. Capital costs are about $2000 per kilowatt compared to $500-$700 for gas, the 'dream fuel'. It's cheaper, clean to burn and flexible. Extra capacity takes only a couple of years to instal.
Whatever the environmental arguments for nuclear, the study says it could not be developed without government support. The risks are simply too great for the private sector to contemplate.
It is this bleak assessment that spells the death-knell for nuclear power. Having privatised power generation and left market forces to settle energy supply, it is inconceivable that the Government would backtrack and distort the market by offering financial support for new nuclear stations. However the review might seek to present it, the gradual decline of nuclear power seems inevitable. But this is a case of technological dream turned nightmare. Worldwide by 2010 the study says there will be about 300,000 tons of nuclear waste scattered through 30 or more countries in temporary storage. In addition vast quantities of military waste are accumulating. The cost of dealing with this means the nuclear problem will never leave us.
Roger Eglin is associate business editor of the Sunday Times.