The toxic legacy of a nuclear future

The DTI has lost its nerve in the face of global geopolitics – energy security has become as critica

The central problem of the Blair government has always been a lack of imagination. This is not the same as a lack of boldness: new Labour has made a point of pushing through unpopular policies, whether with the party (foundation hospitals, tuition fees, trust schools) or the country as a whole (war in Iraq). The trouble is that it has too often mistaken a readiness to grasp the nettle for a genuine vision of Britain's future.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in energy policy. We are on the verge of an oil crisis on the scale of the one experienced in 1973-74, as James Buchan points out in our special report (starts page 30), while the greater crisis of global warming threatens to engulf us if we do not act immediately.

Unfortunately, the energy review published on 11 July by the Department of Trade and Industry is an exercise in short-sightedness. Downing Street has long favoured replacing our rotting nuclear power stations and now this has been backed by a six-month consultation exercise by the energy minister, Malcolm Wicks. While we applaud many of the measures proposed (not least the fivefold increase in wind, solar and tidal power and biofuels), it is hard not to see them as a sop to the environmental lobby, softening the blow of a nuclear renewal programme. It remains a great disappointment that Wicks was not prepared at least to outline an alternative scenario for a nuclear-free future.

On the face of it, the government's figures appear terrifying: the closure of existing nuclear and coal-fired power stations will throw us on the mercy of the international gas markets. According to the DTI review, without a nuclear rebuild, we will need more than half our energy requirements to come from gas by 2020 and all but a tiny proportion of this would come from abroad. The review's authors seem to have lost their nerve in the face of international geopolitics - "energy security" seems to have become at least as important as "climate change". As leaders of the G8 nations prepare to meet in St Petersburg, the energy review provides evidence of just how much this government fears the Russian stranglehold on energy. The terrible truth is that as fear of the Russian nuclear threat to Britain has receded into distant memory, the gas threat has grown to replace it. Russia's recent pledge to turn off the gas supply to Ukraine, unless its neighbour accepted an extortionate price hike, sent a chill through European governments. Britain's response has been to run into the arms of the nuclear industry rather than test the genuinely courageous non-nuclear options.

The review still leaves too many questions unanswered. A similar exercise in 2003 decided that the economic case for nuclear had not been made. What has really changed since then, except that the nuclear industry's PR machine has got its act together? And why has nuclear power suddenly become cleaner and safer? Doesn't that suggest that it used to be dirtier and more dangerous?

It is not quite good enough for the government to argue that nuclear power is, after all, the greenest option. Even the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which supports the burial of existing waste, has said the cost of burial is likely to hit £10bn, roughly the same again as the new generation of power stations. The committee has also emphasised that its support for burial of existing waste does not imply support for new power stations.

Even without raising the spectre of Chernobyl, the consequences for future generations remain unknown. For example, there is no arguing away the leukaemia clusters around Sellafield. New research published in the British Journal of Cancer has suggested that scientists should look again at the possible effects of nuclear power on public health.

A pattern is emerging. There is something repellent about allowing radioactive waste to lie around until future generations invent the technology to deal with it. But, as in the case of those other toxic legacies (from Trident to tuition fees), our children and grandchildren will be the ones to suffer from this government's failure to think big.

Disappointed in you, Auntie

It is hard to appear dignified defending the indefensible, as the BBC chairman, Michael Grade, demonstrated when he went on the Today programme to explain why the corporation's top managers needed large pay increases, while their 23,000-plus staff required rather smaller ones.

Nor was it politic of Grade to defend the salaries of the director general, Mark Thompson (£619,000), or his deputy, Mark Byford (£456,000), with an appeal for sympathy for self-sacrificing senior execs. "Pretty well everybody in the BBC works for less than they could in the private sector. There is no reason why their loyalty should be punished," he said reproachfully.

But Grade has got loyalty all wrong. Loyalty is hanging on in there when someone else would pay more, isn't it? Loyalty would be Jonathan Ross sticking with old Auntie when offered twice the reward elsewhere. If Thompson et al need top-ups and bonuses to persuade them to stay, maybe the chairman has to ask himself just how loyal that top team is.

Unsurprisingly, the unions representing BBC staff are sensitive to the flaw in this display of fat-cattery, particularly as they are being asked to accept a further 2,000 job cuts. They are balloting members on industrial action. Cue hurt feelings at the BBC over the staff's display of disloyalty: "We're disappointed," said a BBC statement. We're all disappointed. Can there really be one rule of loyalty for the bosses and quite another for the workers?