'Economic flaws' in SNP opposition to nuclear power

JUST as Gordon Brown was preparing to play host to his old adversary Alex Salmond at the most high-powered dinner party North Queensferry will have witnessed, a long-running disagreement between their respective parties was moving up a gear, writes Rosemary Gallagher.

Last Wednesday night, Brown invited Salmond and other Scottish political heavyweights to his Fife home for a soire with a serious undertone. They came together round the table to share views on how the Scottish economy could be given the boost it badly needs to lead it out of recession.

However, the amicable gathering was overshadowed by the ongoing disagreement between the SNP and the UK Government on whether nuclear power has a role to play in guaranteeing the country's energy supply.

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The SNP administration's opposition to building any new nuclear power plants in Scotland is one of its key policies. It wants to focus its attention on helping develop the country's renewable energy industry. In the other corner, the UK Government last Wednesday released a list of 11 sites in England and Wales where nuclear powers stations could be built. They will stretch from Braystones in Cumbria to Hinkley Point in Somerset to Wylfa in North Wales. On Thursday, Energy Secretary Ed Miliband travelled north of the Border to tell Salmond that he is putting jobs and investment under threat in Scotland by his refusal to budge on his long-standing anti-nuclear power policy.

However, Salmond is holding firm. A spokesman says: "The view of the Scottish Government and indeed Scotland's Parliament as a whole on nuclear is absolutely clear. Scotland simply doesn't want or need dangerous and unnecessary new nuclear power stations, with soaring decommissioning costs and the unresolved problem of storage of radioactive waste that burdens future generations for thousands of years."

So can Scotland meet its power needs without new nuclear plants and continue to be a net exporter of energy? And will Scotland's economy be battered further by an absence of investment in nuclear?

The UK Government is adamant there is a pressing need to explore all the options available to close a looming power "generation gap" because many existing nuclear and coal-fired stations are set to shut down. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government says it is on target to meet its target of the country generating 50% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

The SNP administration has ruled out any new nuclear power stations in Scotland after the closure of the country's two existing plants at Hunterston and Torness. It has argued the case of renewables, saying that Scotland has around a quarter of Europe's wave and tidal energy potential as well as big opportunities in wind power. It also recently announced plans to create 16,000 green energy-related jobs in Scotland over the next decade.

Most commentators, even trade body Scottish Renewables, believe that green energy must be part of a wider portfolio of power sources. In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, Jason Ormiston, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, said: "The vision we have is of a number of generating technologies operating together where the weaknesses of each are balanced by the strengths of others. I like to think of it as a football team, where the whole is better than the sum of the parts."

The widely held view, outside the Scottish Government, is that renewables cannot meet Scotland's energy needs in isolation and this issue must be addressed now. McKinnon & Clarke, an energy consultancy, has called for the SNP to consider nuclear power as part of the country's energy mix.

David Hunter, analyst for McKinnon & Clarke, says: "In an ideal world, renewable energy would form the basis for Scotland's energy needs but the reality is it can only deliver a portion of the country's requirements and even at that, it is unpredictable."

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Hunter warns that Scotland's coal-fired and nuclear power stations are due to be decommissioned without a clear strategy for replacing them. Cockenzie coal-fired station closes in 2015; Hunterston nuclear plant in 2016; Longannet coal-fired station in 2020; Torness nuclear reactor in 2023 and Peterhead gas-fired station two years later.

With coal producing 32.7% of Scotland's electricity, nuclear 26.4% and renewables, including hydro, only 13%, there is a long way to go before the Scottish Government hits its target of 50% of the country's electricity coming from renewable sources by 2020.

Hunter says: "The reality is that building nuclear power stations is good for jobs. Building one new station can create up to 9,000 jobs.

"Building nuclear power stations would have a number of economic benefits for Scotland. It shouldn't be an issue of either nuclear or renewables. There should be a combination of both," he says.

Technically, it is dangerous to rely on renewables. "Wind and tidal energy sources are subject to factors outwith anyone's control and as a result the country needs a reliable fallback option," says Hunter.

He says the option of extending the life of existing nuclear power plants is limited as they become less efficient with age. Some older plants in the UK have experienced "outages" lasting up to a year.

It is not just the economy that the SNP should be considering when it comes to its views on nuclear, but also the impact on climate change. Grant Hodges, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says all forms of energy, such as nuclear, tidal and wave and wind power, must be adopted to reduce Scotland's carbon footprint. According to Hodges it would be hypocritical for Scotland to refuse to build nuclear plants and then import nuclear power generated in England and overseas to meet its power needs.