Brian Wilson: Paying the price of our stupidity

Scotland is stuck with 50-year-old nuclear technology while England is powering ahead. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Scotland is stuck with 50-year-old nuclear technology while England is powering ahead. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Scotland’s skilled workers and consumers are missing out due to misguided policy on nuclear power, writes Brian Wilson

Ten years is a long time in energy politics and the road is strewn with repentant sinners. But I still had to do a mental rerun of Ed Davey’s Damascene moment in the House of Commons this week.

“Nuclear power,” declared the Liberal Democrat minister, “is an essential part of our energy security strategy.” He is, of course, absolutely right. But it is a conversion which arises not so much out of transformed conviction, but from inescapable dire necessity.

It would have been better if it had occurred years ago, in which case there would not now be panicky talk about the lights going out and we would not be wholly dependent on the long-term, strategic thinking of French and Chinese state-owned companies – the ironic saviours of our privatised market.

And, of course, I wish that 5,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent ones were being created in the West of Scotland as well as in Somerset. A Hunterston C would be of more immediate use to us than a Hinkley Point C. And now that the format has been established, there will be further nuclear new-build in the rest of the UK, which we will duly import.

Anyone who thinks what happens in Somerset has nothing to do with Scotland should head homewards to think again. The absolute certainty as a result of this week’s announcement is that, for decades to come, Scotland will be importing nuclear power produced in England – and paying the price of our own stupidity.

That does seem rather a pity. Scotland has been a world leader in civil nuclear technology since its earliest days. For 40 years, we were net exporters of electricity because of it. We still, for all the overblown rhetoric about the evils of nuclear power, depend upon it every day of the week to keep our lights on and our engines turning. How paradoxical that we are content to depend on 50-year-old nuclear technology while eschewing the state of the art.

Fortunately, Scotland continues to be a major research centre for nuclear energy, with at least 30 research projects ongoing in our universities, which benefit the rest of the UK and of the world – everything from waste remediation through to reactor diagnostics and structural integrity.

Fortunately, Alex Salmond’s nuclear fatwa does not extend, for instance, to Strathclyde University, which – not least because of its cutting-edge nuclear engineering reputation – is currently UK University of the Year and, incidentally, has a major nuclear research centre funded by energy giant EDF.

So I do wish that graduates of Strathclyde would in future be able to work in Scotland. I do regret that school-leavers in my former constituency of Cunninghame North cannot look forward, as their fathers and grandfathers did, to lifelong, secure, well-paid employment at Hunterston. Instead, if they are lucky, they might get a few crumbs from decommissioning as a great Scottish industry faces its death sentence.

In place of jobs in the nuclear industry, they were promised a new industrial revolution based on renewables. It hasn’t happened and it won’t happen. Most of what we have seen is job creation by press release. As I have previously pointed out in this column, Scotland’s two electricity monopolies have between them erected 1,700 turbines, which should have formed the basis of a manufacturing industry.

Not a single, solitary one of these has been built in Scotland. Why has so little leverage been exerted on these companies to invest in the place from where they are raking their profits, including the huge subsidies which UK consumers are paying them to build wind farms in Scotland? Why have the jobs stayed in Spain and Germany? The answer is both depressing and cynical.

The first priority of the Scottish Government has not been to create a manufacturing industry but to secure endorsement for its own ill-conceived energy policy, which Iberdrola (which takes all the big ScottishPower decisions in Madrid) and SSE are delighted to provide by the bucketful. And why wouldn’t they? It is a small price to pay for the bounties they receive in return.

The silliness of allowing nuclear power to wither away, whether in Scotland or the UK as a whole, should never have been in doubt. The three imperatives of energy policy are security of supply, affordability and carbon reduction. In terms of the latter, everything we might conceivably do in renewables will only cancel out what we are losing in nuclear. And we would still need baseload to back up the dominance of windpower.

And what of affordability? The deal struck with EDF and the Chinese is worse than it would have been if decisions had been taken earlier when there were more players in the field. But the guaranteed price for new nuclear is still only two-thirds of what is on offer for offshore wind, never mind the eye-watering subsidies which wave and tidal will require if they ever materialise, as I hope they do.

I took part in a radio discussion with a critic of the Hinkley Point deal, which is not a difficult position to hold until alternatives are asked for. His were an abandonment of the carbon reduction priority, a dash for shale gas and the hope of solar power becoming cheaper. With respect, that is not a package on which I would pin my children’s future.

Neither is the Scottish Government’s almost total reliance on the renewables mantra, while other forms of generation disappear before our eyes, along with the employment that depended upon them. And if truth be told (which it won’t be), “renewables” in Scotland will, for the foreseeable future, be almost totally synonymous with onshore wind.

And what of Nicola Sturgeon’s promise to cut energy bills by 5 per cent if independence is achieved? How does she keep a straight face? Scotland would then be responsible for the entire infrastructure costs of the “100 per cent renewables” since English consumers are hardly going to carry on paying for them, and we would also be importing nuclear power from England to keep the lights on.

No genius of energy economics, far less Sturgeon, could have even a stab at guessing what that lot might translate to in terms of Scottish energy bills. So 5 per cent of what? And transferring energy efficiency measures from consumers to taxpayers would simply make them vulnerable to cuts, at the expense of those who need help in reducing their bills.

The UK has finally started to pre-empt the long-predicted crisis of electricity supply. It is time that Scotland woke up to the fact that press releases and inflated target-setting do not actually generate a single kilowatt of actual power.