Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has announced that new, privately owned nuclear power stations will be up and running by 2018 and that they will receive no government subsidy. This, I assume, is the same Chris Huhne who bemoaned the abject situation in his new department when he took over in May this year. At the time, he complained bitterly about the fact that almost all of his budget for the foreseeable future would need to be spent on nuclear decommissioning, giving him virtually nothing to spend on renewables, which of course have the advantage of being, well, renewable.
What will change with new, private nuclear power stations? Will energy companies who seek to build these new stations be required to pay into a fund to cover future decommissioning costs? I think I can answer that with a resounding 'no' because as soon as any such costs - even taken at today's prices, which will doubtless rocket in future decades - are taken into account the cost of new nuclear power capacity would become hopelessly uneconomic. The clear, obvious outcome of new nuclear power generation to even the most short-sighted of politicians, which Chris Huhne certainly is not, will be huge, unknown costs for a future government when whichever private company decides to build these facilities either ceases to exist or simply walks away, leaving taxpayers with the bill for the mess.
Don't kid us - or yourself - Chris: there will be a taxpayer subsidy for new nuclear power capacity, just not immediately - and when it does arise the cost will be vast.
For the record, I'm not a woolly lefty who is against nuclear power for the sake of it. I simply believe that it is a failed technology. Nuclear power creates by-products which are among the most dangerous we know about and which cannot be made safe for hundreds of thousands of years. How many governments, countries or even civilisations do you know of which have lasted for 500,000 years. There weren't even human beings on the planet 500,000 years ago so who on earth can tell us with any confidence that this problem can be dealt with.
And yes, I am aware that we rely on nuclear power at the moment for a sizeable proportion of our energy usage. Well, we used to burn witches and bait bears but then we decided that we should move on.
We will end up paying and we will be saddled with an intractable problem. That's just not good business or good government. Why can't money be invested in renewables, cleaner existing technology and nuclear fusion, which has the potential to work and to be safe, instead of wasted on what are certain to be financial black holes in the future? Anyone who says it can't be done, consider the difference between a Ford Capri, using technology from 40 years ago, and a low emission, smaller engine, higher torque modern diesel car, of which there is a range to choose from. Similarly, remember a world without the internet? That was less than 20 years ago. I read just this week of a new invention, a bottle with an ultra-violet light powered by a wind up mechanism which can sterilise water in 90 seconds. Brilliant, simple and with the potential to revolutionise the way millions of people live.
I know he reads my blog (!) so here's a plea to Chris Huhne: remember you're a Lib Dem first and climb out of the box, where the thinking is easier. We have innovated our way out of problems before and the impetus can be given by government to do it again, not just to latch onto old technology for a short term fix with a very long term cost. Isn't that the role of a dynamic ministry?
However, if you choose to go down the path of backing nuclear fission, make sure the companies who build these new stations pay upfront into a discrete, invested fund to deal with the consequences of their actions for generations to come - and make the cost realistic, such as 10% of the current annual cost to the taxpayer of decommissioning existing nuclear power stations. Don't do as British governments have done for decades and simply fail to deal with this problem now before it arises. Plan now for all our futures.
Finally, a note: no new nuclear power station has been built for decades. One is being built in Finland which is about 4 years behind schedule and 50% over budget. The model doesn't work, countless safety issues have been found with the design and it is still under construction. I wonder if the Secretary of State would care to comment on this.