I've got no energy, doctor

October 29, 1999

The public may fear nuclear power, but this week energy expert Ian Fells will demand new power stations in Britain. Kam Patel reports on the scientists ridiculing Labour's energy policy

On the train back home to Newcastle a few weeks ago, Ian Fells was reflecting on his day in London - musings disturbed by the purring of his mobile phone. A TV reporter was calling to quiz him about the nuclear accident in Japan earlier that day. Fells's reply, that he knew nothing about it, was met with disbelief. Where on earth had he been all day? wondered the reporter. "I told him I had been chairing a meeting on nuclear power at the Royal Academy of Engineering and, of course, he fell about laughing."

Fells, an energy adviser to the European Parliament and a strong proponent of nuclear power, will this week argue in a lecture at the Royal Society that the government must make plans for building more power stations.

It is an unfashionable line to peddle so soon after the Tokai Mura accident, but the issue is becoming increasingly pressing. The Trade and Industry Committee recently suggested that a "new nuclear plant may be required in the course of the next two decades", while a Royal Academy of Engineering report concluded: "It is vital to keep the nuclear option open." Both bodies have seen what Fells, professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University, believes is the hole in the heart of Labour's energy policy.

Fells accuses the government of "ignoring" the problems that are looming for energy policy because it does not want to face up to the tough decisions that are going to have to be made. He can see why. The Japanese accident has scarcely helped the nuclear lobby: "It has led to the usual calls from organisations like Greenpeace for the world to give up nuclear power." But, Fells insists, that is living in cloud cuckoo land. "It is impossible to replace the electricity provided by the 430 nuclear stations around the world."

According to most optimistic estimates, the world's need for energy will have doubled by 2050. "If I look past 2050 when oil and gas will be starting to run into short supply, I cannot see any way of satisfying the aspirations of developing countries without quite a large slice of nuclear power," Fells says.

So the best thing to do is to make sure the nuclear industry is as safe, reliable and cost-effective as possible "rather than constantly sniping at it, letting it slide down hill and then being forced at too late a date to decide new nuclear plants are needed. If I could find a way of doing without nuclear power - since people are so worried about it - then I would agree to that. But I can't."

What about the lobbies arguing that all we have to do is cut the amount of energy we use? Is that not the answer?

Fells agrees that this is a desirable goal but adds: "Since I have been in the energy business people have said we can cut our energy use by 20 per cent by being more efficient. But in fact the situation has gotten worse over the past five years, people just do not take it seriously and one reason for that is because energy is cheap."

Electricity and gas are now cheaper in this country than ever before. The grotesque paradox is that by driving the price down, people simply use more. "You have to remember the main aim in life of suppliers of electricity and gas is to make more money and sell more of their products. They have no interest in improving efficiency, though they claim they have."

And according to Fells, environmentally friendly sources of energy production such as wind and solar power are not the solution either. He says the bad news for the "dewy-eyed romantics" is that the figures do not add up. Wind power provides just 0.15 per cent of total global electricity needs and in the United Kingdom the figure is just 0.1 per cent. Solar power is so rare it scarcely shows up on the statistics. By contrast hydroelectric and nuclear power generate 35 per cent of the world's electricity. Another positive factor is that neither source adds to the world's greenhouse-gas problem.

Fells advocates a carbon tax to penalise energy sources that produce greenhouse gases. After all, the UK has signed an international treaty promising to slash carbon emissions by 2002. How else can it meet this target?

"The notion that the problem of energy will be solved by leaving it to the market is crazy. The market does not care tuppence about the environment. It will chuck anything it can into the environment unless it is stopped by legislation or taxation. There would not be a single wind farm in the UK had it not been subsidised," Fells says.

Over the next ten years, the Department of Trade and Industry and BNFL, the state-owned nuclear fuel company earmarked for semi-privatisation, expect many of their eight ageing Magnox nuclear power stations, which provide 8 per cent of the UK's electricity, to be closed down. The decision on new nuclear plants will have to be taken by 2003 at the latest because they take up to eight years to build.

"There is a conspiracy of silence about nuclear, a hope that by not saying anything it will all go away," Fells says. "If we do decide to run our nuclear industry down then we will have to take some draconian measures, such as dramatically reducing car use, to meet our commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

Eric Ash, treasurer of the Royal Society, agrees with Fells that some pretty weighty decisions are long overdue. He can see big political risks for the government if it decides to go ahead and build new nuclear plants. But should it do so, he says, ministers will have plenty of arguments to support the programme. The status quo is not an option: "The easiest thing for government would be to do nothing. To have people such as (environment minister) Michael Meacher make speeches highlighting his enthusiasm for renewable energy without putting any figures into his arguments is just not on. We would all love to have a sustainable future, but there is no point having a debate when lobbyists refuse to use quantitive arguments."

Sir Eric says it is time for statesmanlike decisions on the matter. "Tony Blair is a visionary and his most important vision is the next election. That is why I think he should plan now, work up a strategy and announce these very difficult decisions straight after the next election. At least he will have four or five years to smooth it all out."

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