By Ian Fraser
Published: The Sunday Times
Date: 19 April 2009
Ed Miliband desperately wants to persuade Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, to learn to stop worrying and love the . . . well, not the bomb but nuclear energy. Given Salmond’s well known antipathy for this sort of power — his government’s mantra is that nuclear energy is “dangerous and unnecessary” — that might be an uphill struggle.
The UK secretary of state for energy and climate change was last week on a visit to Scotland with his cabinet colleagues, who gathered for an unprecedented cabinet meeting in the SECC’s “Big Red Shed” on Thursday.
Speaking on Radio Scotland, Miliband lambasted the Scottish government for what he sees as its wrong-headed opposition to nuclear power. He suggested that Salmond’s stance on the issue, driven by an overwhelming faith in renewables, is misplaced because without new nuclear power plants, Scotland might struggle to meet its base-load requirements on windless and less-windy days after the existing reactors at Torness and Hunterston are shut down after 2020.
He also suggested that the SNP’s “no new nukes” policy is politically inept, since each new nuclear power station would employ 9,000 people. Miliband told Radio Scotland: “I think that’s a shame for Scotland in industrial terms and I don’t think it’s the right decision for the UK in energy terms, but it does remain a decision for Scotland.” He appeared to be relaxed about the disposal of nuclear waste, even though burying it seems an inadequate long-term solution. And no mention was made of the fact that the world’s supplies of uranium are expected to run out within 60 years.
Salmond then came bounding into the studio to denounce Miliband for launching a “nuclear strike” on Scotland. The nub of Salmond’s argument was that to build nuclear power stations would divert investment and resources from the renewable energy and carbon-capture technologies.
Salmond has of late become a champion of a green solution to Scotland’s looming energy gap. The notion that we should focus on the potential of wave power and offshore wind — resources which are plentiful in Scotland and where we have a competitive and technological advantage — rather than buying in atomic technology from France and Canada, makes strategic sense. Also, with a population of just 5m, Scotland has less need for nuclear power than more densely populated regions such as England.
Salmond argued that the jobs created by nuclear power are decades away, whereas those in the renewables industry are already in the pipeline.
But to put all the country’s energy eggs into the green basket may prove short-sighted. A recent report by the SCDI, produced by the energy consultants Wood Mackenzie, said that new nuclear power should at least be “considered as a potential part of the longer-term generation base in Scotland”. Ways must be found to replace existing power plants with baseload, low-carbon alternatives after 2020.
Windy days ahead
Scotland may be behind the curve where wind energy is concerned. Delays to improving the nation’s transmission infrastructure have meant many onshore developments are on hold while, in offshore wind, we lag behind the field. There is only one active offshore farm in Scotland, the two-turbine Beatrice project in the Moray Firth.
However, it seems we could be generating 6GW of energy from offshore wind farms soon after 2011. Perth-based Scottish and Southern Energy is bidding for offshore sites all around the UK and Scottish coasts. Its Airtricity subsidiary has teamed up with Sea Energy Renewables to look at expanding the Beatrice site, and to develop two new wind array sites off the Scottish coast.
Per Hornung Pedersen, chief executive of German wind turbine manufacturer Repower Systems, last week told me that, if the political will is there, Scotland could generate more than 10 times its domestic energy needs through renewables alone.
Few signs of cheer
On a visit to Glasgow last week, Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, said it’s time we stopped being so “darned pessimistic” and “looked on the upside”. Mandy was roundly mocked for his optimistic stance. But economic downturns can become self-perpetuating through excessive glumness among pundits, politicians and the public.
However, it is also true that, apart from vaguely positive signs of life from US banks, there are few reasons to be cheerful. And Alistair Darling is, of course, due to take a scythe to his growth forecasts on Wednesday.
Spare a thought, however, for the workers at Dundee-based Prisme Packaging. They have been staging a sit-in at their former employer’s offices since being made redundant six weeks ago. After requests for funding fell on deaf ears at RBS and Lloyds, they look set to be evicted tomorrow. No amount of quantitative easing will save their jobs.
This article was the Scottish Agenda column in Sunday Times Scotland published on April 19th, 2009. To view it on Times Online click here.