Paying the price of our stupidity
by BRIAN WILSON
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
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
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
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
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.