Interview - Malcolm Wicks

The energy minister fears we are in for a hard few winters - but he'd rather not press the nuclear b

Before the last election, a rumour swept Whitehall that, if re-elected, Tony Blair wanted to lift energy up the agenda, making it a cabinet job rather than a junior post within the Department of Trade and Industry. It nearly happened. Downing Street drew up plans to replace the DTI with a Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry (PEI), headed by Alan Johnson. Then the media intervened, chopping Johnson's title to Productivity, Energy and Industry Secretary - or PEnIS.

Suddenly the DTI seemed not so bad after all. Johnson became Trade Secretary, and energy was returned to its junior backwater. That is the post Malcolm Wicks now holds. The public hears little about the energy minister, but he could soon be largely responsible for some of the biggest issues facing Britain - climate change, maintaining secure energy supplies, and deciding whether to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Wicks, however, is not gloomy. He has already taken one hard decision - to replace the ministerial limousine with something altogether more worthy: a Toyota Prius, an energy-saving hybrid car. He admits it's a gesture - but a worthy one. Talking to the New Statesman just before flying to the US to inspect other energy-saving projects, he says: "This kind of thing is a real visual symbol of our how individuals and organisations can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. We can all take individual decisions like this."

Wicks's biggest decisions are, however, yet to be taken - such as how to replace the 20 per cent of Britain's electricity supply that is currently produced in Britain's ageing nuclear power stations, or how to guarantee oil and gas supplies as those from the North Sea start drying up - all in the face of surging international demand for fossil fuels.

"The backdrop is the sheer thirst for energy in parts of the world like India, as well as us and the US," he says. "The world is getting more and more hungry for energy, and people are right to note that China is consuming increasing proportions of world energy supply and demand is increasing by 15 per cent there alone. So looking at the UK, we have got to think through the short, medium and long term - where do we get our energy from when our own demand is increasing and when there is such an international thirst for energy?"

This thirst could soon propel Wicks into his first major political crisis. The power generators and industry are already warning of gas shortages this winter, which could lead to some heavy industrial users being cut off, rising prices for the rest of us and, possibly, power cuts. The potential for political fallout is huge - so why has this situation happened? Since January, Britain has switched from being a net exporter of gas to being a net importer. The North Sea gas fields can no longer meet even domestic demand. Meanwhile, the nation's strategic reserves - its liquefied gas stores - are simply too small to cope; so small, in fact, they nearly ran out during a short cold snap last March.

Wicks knows he could have a problem. "We are going to have a tight winter depending on how cold it is. In fact, we are in for a hard two or three winters. Not for the domestic consumer, because there is no threat to household gas supplies. But companies, especially the big industrial users, could have restricted supplies." Does this mean power suppliers, too? With 40 per cent of Britain's electricity already coming from gas-fired power stations, this is a big question - but Wicks isn't sure.

The solution to this problem has been obvious for as long as the North Sea fields have been declining. Britain should have built more storage facilities as a buffer against surges in demand. That is now happening, but so late that all Wicks can do is cross his fingers each winter until they come on-stream in about three years.

Such potential crises underline Britain's increasing reliance on distant and often dubious regimes for its fuel. Much of the gas that will tide us over in winters to come will be shipped from Qatar. Wicks has also just been to Russia, on which much of Europe will soon depend both for gas and for the transit of supplies from other countries. He predicts that by 2020 about 60 per cent of Britain's electricity will be generated through gas, and that 80 per cent of this gas will come from overseas. "As the decades roll by, we will become increasingly dependent on imports of oil and gas and some coal - which raises many questions."

One question must be why Britain is committing itself to increasing dependence on imported fuels that every other nation will also be trying to buy? Surely it's a recipe for rising prices and insecure supplies. Yet Wicks believes it's not that simple. "The long-term price of energy is very difficult territory. Gordon Brown said in a recent speech that all nations have an interest in reductions in price. Of course we do. Commercial users of energy feel the prices are already very high and there is a great worry about that, as well as for motorists and domestic consumers. We all have an interest in seeing prices coming down, but there is only so much that government can do about that. The UK does not control gas and electricity. But I am avoiding the question because it is very difficult to say what prices might do next month, let alone longer term."

This brings us to one potential, albeit partial, solution for future shortages - nuclear energy. Within the next few years, Wicks will have to decide whether to press the button that will send a new generation of nuclear power stations soaring above Britain's horizons. The pressure is mounting. The nuclear lobby hijacked the general election with a slick campaign for new reactors. The public side of that ended with the embarrassing revelation of another huge leak of radioactive waste at Sellafield - but within Westminster the political lobbying has continued.

Until recently Wicks seemed to be yielding to that pressure, telling a July conference of the British Nuclear Energy Society that new nuclear build was a strong option - and even outlining some of the ways it might happen. Since then, however, he has visited Sellafield, and what he saw of the way waste had been handled and stored seems to have shocked him. "I think it is an absolute disgrace that the industry, governments, parliaments have not confronted this legacy before. There is a huge irresponsibility which a lot of people should take responsibility for, by which I mean governments of different political hues over several decades."

For Wicks, the speed with which that legacy is dealt with is crucial to how soon he can take a decision about new nuclear power stations. "My judgement is that until we can convince ourselves, parliament and public that we have answers on the legacy, I don't think we can be in a good position to have a well-informed debate about the advantages and disadvantages of future nuclear reactors. That is my political judgement. Also, any discussion about nuclear has to involve the public. I was brought up in the 1960s and the Cuban missile crisis and all that stuff. There is still a lot of public misconception and fear about nuclear. Some of that is about history and bombs, but it is also because the industry has historically shrouded itself in secrecy."

Wicks is clear that he has not turned against nuclear power. What he is waiting for is a technical report from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, due next year, on whether there is a scientifically sensible and cost-effective way for Britain to dispose of its longest-lived nuclear waste. Much also depends on how successful the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is at winning back public trust. All this makes a decision on nuclear within the next two years seem unlikely. And would Wicks really plan on triggering that debate in what will be the run-up to the next election?

Whatever happens about nuclear will, in the end, make little difference to what Wicks sees as the "world's most pressing challenge of all" - the surging emissions of greenhouse gases and their impact on the climate. He said recently: "Climate change presents a serious threat - on a planetary scale - that requires an urgent and effective global response."

Faced with such a threat, one might expect a proportionate response - a dash for renewables, say, or a huge push to make the nation more energy efficient. The reality is rather different. Wicks says that he is "excited by energy-saving measures, and hopes to see a continuing expansion in wind power and in micro-generation - where each home and business is fitted with its own turbines, solar panels or power generators." But how will he persuade householders and businesses to adopt such measures en masse? Slowly, by all accounts. "A lot is about public education and communications. We are not going to have a major grants programme like you might have seen in the past to give people indoor toilets and running water. There will be a relatively modest grants programme, but that is all."

If this doesn't sound like the level of commitment needed to save Britain from catastrophe, Wicks inadvertently offers an even bleaker global view: "Whatever the green lobby might want, the reality is that humanity is going to be consuming huge and ever-increasing amounts of coal, gas and oil. How do we square the circle between that reality and the challenge of climate change? Part of the answer is that we have to move towards clean coal technologies that can abate the carbon produced, and look at carbon capture and sequestration."

The answer is meant to be a hopeful one, but the reality is that such technologies are in their infancy and none has been tried on the huge scale needed. The cost would also be unacceptable to most developing countries. If that really is his best hope, then perhaps Britain and its minister for energy ought to admit that, when it comes to climate change, they are powerless.

Jonathan Leake is science and environment editor of the Sunday Times

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