Stop ducking nuclear issue, Salmond told

AN INDEPENDENT Scotland without nuclear power would be forced to rely on England to "keep the lights on", the UK's energy minister warned last night.

Mike O'Brien accused the First Minister, Alex Salmond, of "ducking" the nuclear issue and taking a "punt" on hopes that renewable energy would meet Scotland's future energy needs.

The row centres on the SNP Government's decision to block any new nuclear power stations north of the border. The country's two stations, at Hunterston and Torness, which supply up to 40% of Scotland's electricity, are due to close within the next 15 years

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O'Brien, who took over the post last month, said that Salmond was betting too much on hopes that new renewable sources of energy – such as tidal – will start producing electricity over the next 20 years.

He said without nuclear, the country's energy independence was at risk. He told Scotland on Sunday: "It would be very difficult to see how Alex can seriously give the guarantees he would need about keeping the lights on in an independent Scotland without accepting that it would to some extent be dependent on its relationship with England.

"The lights won't go out but Alex is just not facing the political issues, he's ducking them."

The minister also warned that an over-reliance on renewables would push up electricity bills by as much as 40% because of the high costs of generation.

He added: "Alex wants to pursue – for completely ideological reasons – a separate energy policy and just say this is a big difference between us and them.

Just saying Scotland doesn't need nuclear is not a serious policy. It's saying we will take a punt that these things will all be ready and deployable."

A spokesman for Salmond said: "These remarks are economically illiterate. Mike O'Brien obviously has no idea of what is happening in Scotland, or indeed England. He is out of touch and out of date.

"Mike O'Brien is the energy minister facing the biggest energy gap in Europe spouting nonsense about the country with the biggest potential surplus. But he needn't worry: Scotland will always sell electricity into England as part of our good neighbour policy.

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"Scotland has the capacity to generate 60GW of power from renewable energy alone – 10 times Scotland's peak demand. Far from any energy gap, the challenge is building the infrastructure to export Scotland's electricity surplus."

A new paper by the Royal Society of Edinburgh for the Scottish Parliament appears to back O'Brien's case. In a submission to Holyrood's economy committee, the society declares: "We encourage both the UK Government and the Scottish Executive to keep open the nuclear electricity generating option in the interests of diversity and security of supply and suppression of greenhouse gas emissions."

Scotland and England now appear to be going in separate directions on energy generation after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that a new generation of nuclear stations will be built south of the border.

In Scotland ministers believe that half of all electricity needed north of the border can be supplied using renewable energy by 2020.

O'Brien was also backed recently by Professor Wilson Sibbett, the former head of the Scottish Science Advisory Committee, the body which advises Scottish ministers on scientific issues of strategic importance.

Earlier he said: "The SNP view is all very well in theory but in reality it doesn't work. Our established nuclear technology has a lot of things going for it."

Scottish ministers can prevent new nuclear stations being built because they have control over planning in Scotland.