Power struggle in the UK

AS Britain's need for energy increases, Gayle looks at the options

“WHAT is unbelievably depressing about the Government's response is that they see in the evidence about [climate change], not an opportunity to promote environmental concern but a chance to make the case for nuclear power."

Guess who said that? Well, it was the Labour spokesman on energy, Tony Blair, debating electricity privatisation in 1989.

Blair has not lost his desire to promote environmental concerns, but he is now an enthusiastic proponent of the new generation of nuclear power stations. So enthusiastic that there are proposals on the table to bulldoze a way through the planning process and introduce a swingeing carbon tax to increase the price of fossil fuel energy sources.

When I was a child in the fifties, nuclear power represented the dream of pure, cheap, unlimited energy. In the sixties and seventies we lived through the Cold War, with the ever present anxiety about a nuclear holocaust set off by America or Russia. In the eighties, with disarmament on the cards for nuclear weapons, accidents at nuclear power plants brought the spectre of radioactive contamination back to life.

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Twenty years after the fallout from Chernobyl drifted across Europe, we are now being encouraged to welcome a new wave of hastily constructed power stations which are said to be safer than ever before.

Mark Gorry, Sizewell B station director, told a BBC reporter that huge lessons were learnt from Chernobyl, and he didn't believe anything like that would happen again. But he added: “ I wouldn't stand here and say we'll never have a problem, because that would be complacent, but I am confident."

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Nuclear power, we are told, can save us from dependency on unreliable foreign suppliers. In terms of carbon emissions, it beats conventional power stations hands down. And provided you leave the costs of decommissioning and storing nuclear waste for thousands of years out of the equation, nuclear power is cost effective.

But however much the Government presses the case for nuclear energy, the public has a deep rooted distrust and dislike of a technology which we are far from mastering. All we can promise is to keep the genii in the bottle - for a time. There is no guarantee that we can design a 'bottle' which will outlast the millennial death throes of radioactive waste.

We in the developed world are filling our homes with gadgets faster than ever before; plasma TVs that use four times as much energy , a television in every room, computers, CD players, iPods, mobile phones - there is no end to our demand for more and more power on tap.

Last week, when Britain was sweltering in temperatures hotter than Death Valley, electricity consumption surged to power air conditioning systems

And in the developing world, the vast populations of China and India want to catch up.

Everyone seems to agree that renewable energy cannot fill the bill entirely. No-one is anywhere near accepting that maybe we just can't HAVE as much energy as we want.

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