The nuclear wisdom of young Blair

Observations on energy

When it comes to nuclear power, Dave "Chameleon" Cameron may be a few colours short of a rainbow when compared with Tony Blair. Even in the Labour Party few remember it, but one of Blair's first big jobs was as Neil Kinnock's shadow energy secretary, and his demolition of the muddled finances and environmental hazards of nuclear power played a large part in establishing him as a potential party leader.

"What is unbelievably depressing about the [Conservative] government's response is that they see, in the evidence about greenhouse gases, not an opportunity to promote environmental concern but a chance to make the case for nuclear power," he thundered, back then.

Blair had the job in 1988-89, just as the Tories were pushing electricity privatisation through the Commons, a step that forced them to publish the first detailed analyses of the nuclear industry's finances. When the City saw the huge liabilities for dealing with nuclear waste it was horrified. Blair took the opportunity to demonstrate his rhetorical and analytical powers.

"It will be the consumer who will pay, along with the taxpayer, as we shall see later," he warned the Commons. "The irony . . . is that, whereas the profit from the electricity industry moves to the private sector, much of the risk and liability stays in the public sector."

In those days, the cost of cleaning up after half a century of nuclear power and weapons research was estimated at less than £10bn. Since then, Blair has overseen the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has a budget of £70bn and rising. Most of this will fall to the taxpayer to pay.

Blair also warned, back then: "Radioactive waste is a major environmental problem and one for which we have no easy answer at present . . . When people learned that nuclear reactors must be left for 100 years before final decommissioning takes place, it provided them with a considerable education in the environmental implications of nuclear power."

Blair anticipated by 14 years the findings of an energy report published by his own policy research unit in 2002 and an energy white paper in 2003, both of which concluded that the best way to cut carbon emissions was energy efficiency.

He told the Commons: "Having made a big issue of the greenhouse effect, it became clear that energy efficiency was the best way to deal with it, but . . . the government's position has been characterised by a malign reluctance to have anything to do with the notion of energy conservation." Exactly the charge levelled at Blair by modern greens angry at his conversion to nuclear.

He also saw how the nuclear industry could never make a real profit and so would constantly seek new subsidies, warning that "there will be a special levy or tax on consumers to pay for the new generation of nuclear power stations that private investors will not undertake".

The nuclear industry proved him right, first calling for a "security of supply" levy on consumers, and then, when that was rejected, switching to calls for a carbon tax on gas- and coal-fired generators that would make their electricity as costly as nuclear.

Back then, Blair predicted: "When it comes to the decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations the taxpayer will be asked to underwrite the risk . . . even though the profit from the industry has passed into the private sector. In short, we have all the disadvantages of the private sector without even the one benefit it can offer, from market forces."

Blair's conclusion was firm: "When we appreciate what a real agenda for a modern energy policy for Britain will contain, we see that it is not just the cost that the consumer will pay; it is not just the burden that the country will bear; it is the sheer, breathtaking irrelevance of these proposals to the modern issues of today."

In a topsy-turvy world where the Tories are the new greens and new Labour is pro-nuclear, the words of the young Blair offer Cameron a useful guide to the simple truths of nuclear power.