Decision time is drawing closer on the future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom. While the majority of the current set of reactors have a decade or more life left in them, the lead-time to build a replacement means that a decision will have to be taken soon. Nuclear power is considered a 'clean' option compared to the traditional fossil fuels as they do not produce CO2 emissions and are, in that sense, "environmentally friendly".
Finland, one of the countries worst affected by the Chernobyl disaster, has recently commissioned their first reactor since the accident, proving that even a particularly wary and traditionally environmentalist nation can be persuaded of the merits of the nuclear option. Key to winning that battle was dealing with the long-term disposal of waste. In this case, by deep and intermediate level underground storage. Even the Green party supported the plans in the Finnish Parliament proving solutions can be found.
The issue of the disposal of nuclear waste has an increased importance in Scotland, with the First Minister opposed to any new nuclear power stations in Scotland until an answer has been found to this problem. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have taken an even stronger line on the issue. 2007 will see the next Scottish Parliamentary elections. At that point, the nuclear issue is certain to play an important role.
Whilst energy policy is a matter reserved to the UK Parliament, and therefore the Scottish Parliament cannot, in theory, prevent the building of a nuclear power station, planning matters have been devolved and are ultimately determined by the Scottish Ministers. Planning consent for construction will be determined in Scotland and it is by that means that the Parliament could prevent the construction of a nuclear power station in Scotland. That would place Holyrood and Westminster on a collision course: could the nuclear issue really lead to a constitutional meltdown?
Ultimately, Westminster could bypass the Scottish Parliament, ironically referred to as 'the nuclear option' by constitutional lawyers! It is politically inconceivable that it would come to that, as the bottom line is that over a third of energy generated in Scotland is from nuclear power plants and that will have to be replaced once the existing stations are decommissioned.
While there is a domestic battle to be fought and won on the merits of replacing our current fleet of nuclear power plants, there is also a European dimension. The Prime Minister recently spoke, in an address to the European Parliament, of the need for Europe to co-ordinate their energy policies and adopt a unified stance on the development of nuclear power. He wanted to see Europe move away from the "haphazard and random" way in which energy needs and priorities have been determined in the past. However, while the UK looks set to go down a nuclear route, in Germany the SPD, who have retained the Environment Ministry under the 'Grand coalition', has restated its commitment to phase out all nuclear plants in Germany by 2020, notwithstanding calls from the leading utilities not to rule out any one source of energy on "ideological grounds".
As the UK seeks to address its energy demands for the decades ahead, there are some tough decisions to be made and hard battles to fight, both at the UK level, in Scotland and in Europe. The Trade and Industry Secretary stressed in his evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee that the current review was an Energy Review, not a Nuclear Review and that what was being considered was the mix of energy supply: renewables, clean coal technologies, oil and gas and nuclear. In the decades ahead, the "base load" energy we currently derive from nuclear power will have to be replaced in some way, even if it is much of the same.