"We must make the case for civil nuclear power to tackle the energy crisis with least damage to the environment."

– Conservative spokesman on energy, October 2005

I have always been "instinctively hostile to nuclear because I’m suspicious of the dangers it poses."

– Conservative spokesman on energy, February 2006

Duncan_alan_3The shift in emphasis has come with a change of policy spokesman.  The October 2005 statement was made by David Willetts to the Conservative Party Conference.  The second statement was made by David’s successor as Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alan Duncan.  The FT interprets the new stance as "unexpectedly hostile" to the
endorsement of nuclear power that will likely be made by Prime
Minister Tony Blair’s energy review.

Mr Duncan uses an interview with today’s FT (subscription required) to emphasise the difficult economics of nuclear energy:

"The economics are absolutely crucial. The only power station anyone’s going to build in a free market at the moment is a gas-fired one.  On the nuclear side, there’s a massive question mark over whether, if a nuclear generating company were made to meet all its costs through the entire life cycle of the project, that they would ever build a nuclear power station. That calls into question, given the nuclear decommissioning costs… the relationship between the nuclear sector and government.  If, and again this might come out of the review, it looks as though coal and oil can capture and not emit carbon, then they can contribute to an emissions target."

NuclearpowerBut is Mr Duncan’s premise correct?  He talks of a "free market" in energy but, in reality, it is a heavily (and, perhaps, unfairly) regulated market.  The poor economics of the nuclear industry are partly blamed by some on reactionary over-regulation (see here and here for an American context).

In any case… should cost be the only consideration when it comes to the ‘nuclear option’?  Environmentalists such as James Lovelock believe that a major expansion of nuclear energy is the only way to beat global warming.  Others believe that embracing nuclear power is necessary for energy security.  For the second time in a very short time I find myself agreeing with Chris Patten.  In yesterday’s FT he asked…

"Do we really prefer dependence on Vladimir Putin, Russian president, and Gazprom or nuclear power?"

My guess is that we probably need a diverse mix of energy sources.  Some will be cheaper at different times as technologies and market conditions evolve.  The Conservatives should support Tony Blair if he takes the nuclear option.  The need for long-term solutions to both the energy and pensions crises demand a degree of cross-party consensus.  The Tories shouldn’t play politics on this issue.  Let’s leave that to the LibDems…