The Con Dem Government has claimed that our taxes won't be used to subsidise nuclear power. Yet the new Energy Bill that's being debated opens the way for public bailouts if the cost of dealing with nuclear waste spirals. Instead of risking a nuclear bailout, the Government should set this money aside for nationwide energy saving and investment in renewable power.
Now MPs have called for ministers to come clean and admit they are tacitly subsidising nuclear power despite promising that the industry would not receive such support. MP's on the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee have reported that Ministers are attempting to disguise the Nuclear subsidy and are distorting reforms of the energy market. They have also warned that unless the issue was resolved, the UK would fail to get the low-carbon energy system it needs.
The Select Committee's report focuses on the Con Dem government's plans to shake up the energy market.The shake up is needed to ensure the provision of affordable electricity without compromising the UK's climate change targets.
At the present, the current energy market exists to supply plentiful (allegedly) cheap electricity, but makes little provision for ensuring that any energy supplied has lower carbon emissions. MP's and some energy experts have complained that the UK Government is failing to attract enough investment in the infrastructure needed to meet energy needs.
The Con Dem coalition agreement allows the construction of new nuclear power stations "provided that they receive no public subsidy". At the moment the nuclear industry is refusing to build new power stations unless their are further inducements, Con Dem ministers have proposed threat the energy companies that build nuclear power plants get long-term contracts at a guaranteed price for energy produced by their nuclear power.
To make life even more complicated there is the problem of the low price of carbon credits in the EU emissions trading market. UK ministers now plan to introduce a minimum price below which carbon permits will not be allowed to sink with any shortfall will be covered by revenue raised by taxation.
This is intervention in the free market (such as it is) to an amazing degree from a Conservative dominated government. The Con Dems have said that both these policies will benefit renewables too, yet, this ensure that electricity prices remain higher than they would have been without this blatant intervention to favour nuclear industry. This "one size fits all" policy barely disguises what is a subsidy to the nuclear industry, as has rightly been noted by MPs.
For many years, the UK nuclear industry has lived quite happily off massive subsidies from UK taxpayers, at the same time cleaner renewable forms of energy have been starved of cash and investment. Potential sustainable energy suppliers and developers have had to face a less than subtle pro nuclear bias from UK Government departments and agencies, something that has seriously slowed the development of secure and sustainable energy supplies in the UK.
Back in 2002 British Energy (BE) became virtually bankrupt, so the European Commission quietly approved the UK Government's decision to bailout the private nuclear power generator. Under the restructuring plan drawn up to save the company, the UK government agreed to indemnify the company against any shortfall in the nuclear liabilities fund which meets its clean up costs.
BE in return contributes 65% of its net cash flow to the fund, the National Audit Office says this uncertainty "places a significant risk in the hands of the taxpayer", effectively leaving the taxpayer according to NAO facing "a large and uncertain liability". It gets better, BE’s liabilities, all taxpayer subsidised, have risen to £5.1 billion, an increase of more than 30%, since 2003. The amount the taxpayer has to pay will depend on the company's future financial performance.
Now the UK Government plans to build new reactors in the UK (something initiated by Tony Blair and supported by Gordon Brown) and runs the risk of fatally binding the UK to nuclear power for decades, something that will continue to divert vital investment away from clean, renewable energy. It's time for the UK Government to finally come clean about the costs (financial and environmental) of the UK nuclear industry.
Back in 2008, Gordon Brown’s cabinet rubber stamped Tony Blair’s decision to back the nuclear option to solve the UK energy needs was both disappointing and short-sighted, but, was not unexpected. By making nuclear power its priority the failing Brown Government effectively abandoned any serious attempts to conserve energy, and significantly undermined its own commitments to tackling climate change. So far the Con Dems have brought little to the debate...
When it comes to power generation there are real job opportunities that need to be fully grasped; the renewable energy sector can play an immensely important role in creating more green energy jobs. We need to create a decentralised power generation system which can include a community owned and community beneficial sector which will create sustainable long-term jobs for local people, not damage the environment and contribute to providing our local communities with a long-term viable economic energy future.
Now is definitely the time for control of energy policy to be devolved to the National Assembly and time for some original non nuclear thinking and a fundamental sea change in attitude from all levels of government in Wales towards energy policy.