SCOTLAND produced enough non-nuclear electricity to satisfy all its power needs last year, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, said yesterday, as divisions deepened between Holyrood and Westminster over energy policy.
His claim came on the day the UK government announced plans for four new nuclear stations south of the Border, arguing this was the only way to guarantee reliable, environmentally friendly electricity for the foreseeable future.
John Hutton, the Business Secretary, even accused Scottish ministers – who are opposed to new nuclear stations in Scotland – of making "a mistake" they would come to regret.
As the row over nuclear power re- ignited, Mr Salmond played his trump card: the assertion that Scotland was already self-sufficient in non-nuclear electricity.
He predicted the figures for the past 12 months – which will not be published until the end of this year – would show the amount of electricity generated in Scotland from non- nuclear sources would cover the country's entire needs.
The First Minister said: "In 2006, we were producing more of our electricity from non-nuclear sources – 92.5 per cent of our consumption could have come from these.
"And I think you will find that, in 2007, 100 per cent of our consumption of electricity will have been met from non-nuclear sources. Hunterston B (nuclear station] was out for virtually all of 2007.
"Our aim is a non-nuclear Scotland. We are not going to close nuclear stations; they will come to the end of their natural lives and then will be shut."
According to the latest UK government statistics, Scotland's two nuclear power stations produced 26 per cent of the electricity generated in Scotland in 2006, down from 38 per cent the year before.
But Scotland needs only about 80 per cent of the electricity produced north of the Border for its own consumption and exports about 20 per cent to England.
The First Minister said that, because the amount of power from renewables has increased, and the level from nuclear has reduced, Scotland has reached the point where nuclear power was no longer an essential element of the energy mix.
So, if both its nuclear power stations were shut down, Scotland would not have to import electricity but could survive with other, existing sources.
This, Mr Salmond said, undermined the argument that Scotland would have an energy gap without nuclear power.
Mr Salmond also claimed Scotland would become a big net exporter of electricity to Europe in the medium to long term. "Far from there being an energy gap in Scotland, there is a strong indication that, within a generation, we will be producing four, five or six times our required electricity in Scotland, and the key issue is finding a way of exporting that power to the energy-poor regions of Europe," he said.
Scotland is, however, still heavily reliant on oil and gas – together, they make up more than 50 per cent of electricity production. And, despite the big drive to develop green energy, renewables – including hydro power – make up only about 13 per cent of electricity generation.
Jason Ormiston, the chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the trade association, said Mr Salmond's assessment was right, but the real issue was whether Scotland really wanted to be completely nuclear free.
He said: "Statistically, it is accurate. We would be able to supply all of Scotland's energy needs without nuclear. The question is 'do we want to?'. It seems a bit risky to do without nuclear. Would we be just surviving? Is it possible, and advisable, to have a cushion that gives us a bit more confidence?"
The Scottish Government has targeted producing 31 per cent of Scotland's electricity from renewables by 2011 and 50 per cent by 2020. A spokesman insisted it was on course to meet these targets because the renewables sector, although still small, was growing rapidly – by 46 per cent in the past year.
Mr Hutton attacked the Scottish Government's position when he announced his nuclear plans in the Commons yesterday.
He said he accepted Scottish ministers were entitled to take their own stand on this issue,
but he added: "I think that it is a mistake that Scottish ministers are making, and I think it is more to do with a political stunt than taking responsible long-term decisions in the best interests of either Scottish electricity consumers, or the wider UK perspective.
"I regret that, and I believe that Scottish ministers will come to regret that decision too."
Mr Hutton told MPs that, with a third of the UK's generating capacity coming offline within the next 20 years, and with an increasing reliance on imported energy, it was clear that investment was needed in a range of new infrastructure.
He will now invite companies to be involved in nuclear building programmes and said he expected the first station to be completed well before 2020.
He conceded no nuclear plant had been built anywhere in the world without public money but insisted there would be no subsidies from the UK government.
Mr Hutton said: "The government believes it is in the public interest that new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country's future energy mix, alongside other low-carbon sources; that it would be in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations, and that the government should take active steps to open up the way to the construction of new nuclear power stations.
"It will be for energy companies to fund, develop and build new nuclear power stations in the UK, including meeting the full costs of decommissioning and their full share of waste management costs."
It emerged later that energy companies believe an extra four nuclear stations will be needed and these will be sited alongside existing plants.
The government's announcement was warmly welcomed by pro-nuclear and business groups as well as unions representing nuclear workers, but was attacked by environmentalists, some opposition politicians and a few Labour supporters.
Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, described it as the "mistake of a generation", while Greenpeace said the radioactive waste problem was still the "roadblock" to new nuclear power.
Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "If new stations are built, it will add to stockpiles of unmanageable waste and create new targets for terrorists."
But the decision was welcomed by unions representing workers in the nuclear industry and by the Tories, who were disappointed Scotland was going to miss out. David Mundell, the shadow Scottish secretary, said: "It is a wasted economic opportunity for Scotland and there is every chance it will eventually lead us to import electricity."
Lewis Macdonald, MSP, Labour's energy spokesman, said the SNP had cast "a huge shadow" over Scotland's future energy needs. "Their refusal to consider new nuclear energy as part of Scotland's energy mix is short-sighted and leaves Scotland without a coherent energy strategy," he said.
Nation must take a lead on renewable sources of energy if it is to remain free of N-power
ALEX Salmond's claims that Scotland is effectively nuclear free could be technically possible and viable – but only if it is met with action. The Scottish Government must, if it is to continue down the renewables path, deal more consistently with local planning applications.
In particular, ministers must make sure the controversial line from Beauly to Denny goes through.
If Scotland did meet 40-50 per cent of its energy from renewable energy sources, then it will be self-sufficient until 2020. Beyond that, however, energy conservation measures will have to be more forcefully employed.
If, however, the Scottish Government decides to go intensively down the renewables path, then
some fossil fuels will be needed as back-up.
But if Scotland invests properly in this technology, then it could become an innovator, as Denmark was with wind power.
What is clear, is that the move towards renewables is no more risky than going down the nuclear path. As far back as 2000, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution identified a range of scenarios showing that the UK's energy needs to 2050 could be met in a range of ways while reducing emissions substantially.
It could be done with energy conservation and large-scale deployment of a range of renewable technologies – principally biomass, onshore and offshore wind and some newer technologies, such as wave energy, towards the end of the period. If the landscape implications of all these renewables was too much to bear, then 46 new nuclear power plants would do the trick (rather more than was announced yesterday).
Energy needs could also be met through aggressively pursuing energy conservation, combined heat and power and a more limited range of renewables to achieve the same ends.
All are technically possible and all would cost more or less the same, according to the Royal Commission.
The Forum for Renewable Energy Development and later Edinburgh University showed that at least 40 per cent of Scotland's electricity needs come from renewables and that, with a mix of technologies, the lights would stay on.
The problem for Scotland is not about whether the future gap can be filled, but rather about how – and the consequences. Do we choose renewables and alter our landscape and land-use patterns or do we choose nuclear, possibly at the expense of telling the world we are leaders in carbon reduction but using a technology we would be reluctant to see used in certain parts of the world?
Do we consolidate our fossil-fuel dependence by opting for coal and carbon capture or do we at last bite the bullet and improve the energy performance of our workplaces and homes? There is no right or wrong answer – only challenges of delivery.
• Fred Dinning retired as director of energy and environment at ScottishPower in December 2005 following a career spanning all aspects of energy generation, supply and use
UNDERGROUND STORAGE PLAN
NUCLEAR waste is likely to be stored deep underground in sites volunteered by local communities, ministers revealed yesterday.
Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary at Westminster, said: "The government view is that the consultation responses indicate support for managing higher activity radioactive waste in the long term through geological disposal."
The UK government will invite local communities to volunteer to host the underground sites, with a benefits package offered in return.
The document, published yesterday following consultations last year, added: "A call for communities to express an interest will come later, once the responses to the consultation have been assessed and government has published the white paper in 2008."
The white paper is due to be published in the spring.
Previous proposals for "nuclear waste dumps" have sparked huge local protests – something that ministers are seeking to avoid by asking communities to volunteer to host sites.
Ministers are also understood to be considering the option of eventually creating an undersea storage system, possibly off the Cumbrian coast.
However, this option was not confirmed in yesterday's document.
Mr Benn added: "The government continues to see geological disposal as the way forward for the long-term management of higher-activity radioactive waste."
Such materials would come not only from the proposed new generation of nuclear power stations, but also from medical, military and academic sources.
John Hutton, the Business Secretary, told MPs in the Commons that energy companies would bear the full cost of eventually decommissioning new stations at the end of their life and meet "each operator's full share of waste management costs".
However, a spokesman for Greenpeace said last night:
"The government's nuclear policy looks like a dog's breakfast.
"Ministers are proposing to store highly radioactive waste in the ground, but the only area so far mooted is Cumbria, which the government's own advisers have already ruled out on safety grounds.
"You have to wonder what on Earth is going on in Whitehall."