Whatever your view of Tony Blair as he enters his final phase as prime minister, he just might have performed one of his biggest single services to the nation.
He did this by putting on public record his view that nuclear energy is a serious option for meeting the long-term energy needs of the UK, and promising that ‘difficult and controversial decisions’ will be made in the national interest.
At last there are signs that a proper, informed debate on this most thorny of issues is on the agenda. This would be some sort of progress, because the sooner we get on with the debate the quicker we can take action following its outcome.
The pattern the debate will follow quickly became apparent after the PM’s remarks. A deluge of negative comment from the anti-nuclear lobby’s usual suspects immediately portrayed any move towards a new generation of power stations as a catastrophe-in-waiting.
The quality of argument on offer from the antis varied. At one extreme we were warned about the nuclear industry’s less than impressive track record on matters such as waste. This is fair comment, and — as The Engineer has pointed out until we are blue in the face — a satisfactory technical solution to the waste issue is an absolute precondition for a future nuclear programme.
At the other end of the spectrum, we were treated to some rather less convincing suggestions of alternative ways to head off the UK’s impending energy crunch. Quaintly, these included a nationwide push to get more of us to ‘do our bit’ for energy saving, presumably by setting our thermostats a few degrees lower and never leaving the TV on stand-by.
This is the UK we’re talking about, remember. The nation with a TV in every room, a computer for each member of the family, and every plug socket in the house fully occupied with charging up a phone, an i-Pod or a digital camera.
Renewables, of course, are the other big weapon in the no-nuclear arsenal. Any sensible future energy policy will include a significant element of renewable technology.
But let’s not kid ourselves that, by themselves, it will be anything like enough.
(There is also a slight irony in the way wind energy is held up as a thing of beauty whenever the nuclear question raises its head. It spends the rest of the year being vilified, possibly by the very same pundits, as the Devil’s own blot on the beautiful British countryside).
Of course the public will be cautious when it comes to nuclear policy. It is right to be. But make no mistake, if the lights begin to go out and the gas supplies fail, we will start to feel like a very cold, isolated island indeed. A properly managed technologically advanced nuclear programme will then begin to become a welcome prospect, and the argument will have been won. The question is: by then will it be too late?