Tough choices on energy

From the nuclear lobby's perspective, the timing could scarcely have been worse. A major radioactive leak was discovered at the THORP reprocessing plant days after the Sellafield site was transferred to the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (see p 10 ). Long seen by environmentalists as a costly and polluting white elephant, THORP will be shut for several months to come, and serious people are suggesting that it may never reopen.

The news is a significant blow to the nuclear industry's resurgent campaign for a new generation of reactors (ENDS Report 364, pp 21-24 ). In political terms, the leak is a potent reminder of the high risks involved in betting on the nuclear industry.

The history of THORP is an unhappy saga of ill-conceived grand designs, voodoo economics, technical problems and capture of the political and regulatory process. In a classic case of throwing good money after bad, the £600 million MOX plant was built in a bid to find some use for THORP's products - but this too is beset with technical problems and lack of orders. Both THORP and MOX now look set to be a drain on the NDA's resources - undermining its core task of tackling the UK's £50 billion civil nuclear legacies.

Despite the Sellafield setback, the nuclear campaign has poured fuel onto a smouldering debate over the UK's energy policy. The threat of climate change is becoming ever more pressing, and there is mounting evidence that adverse trends in the economy will make emissions targets harder to reach than previously thought. The scale and complexity of the challenge is the main reason that the review of the climate change programme is making heavy weather - with the timetable now slipping to the end of the year - but the Government will soon need to make some tough choices.

Malcolm Wicks, the latest in a string of Ministers to oversee energy at the Department of Trade and Industry, has already expressed his "determination to push ahead on renewables". The Sustainable Development Commission has rushed to the barricades to fend off the groundswell of attacks on wind power (see pp 12-13 ) - and it is clear that renewables' contribution will need to grow hugely in any viable future energy model.

However, the vision of a wholesale shift towards a decentralised model of low carbon electricity production is coming under attack. For example, an important scientific advisory body has told the Government to concentrate its efforts on large-scale, low carbon technologies - nuclear, tidal power and fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage.

In mid-June, the DTI took this advice. Its carbon abatement strategy promises to fund demonstration projects for CO2 capture and storage - and to develop policies to support commercial deployment by the start of the next decade (see pp 40-41 ).

The DTI's new-found enthusiasm for carbon capture is fuelled by two key factors. The first is official modelling which finds that the UK's use of coal may remain significant in 2020 and beyond, rather than dwindling away as expected previously. The second is the realisation that other countries, most notably China and India, will invest in a huge number of coal-fired power stations over the next two decades. More efficient combustion systems and, more importantly, building in the scope for carbon capture, are seen as the only serious way of heading off the potentially catastrophic consequences for the climate.

Ironically, however, the Government's embrace of carbon capture and storage also owes something to the nuclear industry's campaigning. It seems that Ministers have accepted much of the nuclear lobby's critique of the current approach to energy policy - but have recoiled from the proposed solution, reaching instead for the most obvious large-scale alternative.