Lord Jones of Birmingham (try not to laugh) made his maiden speech in the House of Lords today, on the subject of the Energy White Paper. In a largely unremarkable spiel, most of which simply restated government position, the only comments that went beyond that position were the following:
"In the UK, we are used to being largely self-sufficient in terms of our electricity generation: the people are used to it. But times are changing, and they are changing at a time of rising demand and prices and at a time when energy supplies are becoming increasingly politicised. This is not a position anyone in this country will be comfortable with."
"If nuclear is not available to the energy market as an option, it is likely that in its place much of the new investment will be in gas or coal generation, which, of course, emits higher levels of carbon and leaves us increasingly dependent upon imports for this nation’s electricity generation."
So the argument is being warmed-up that nuclear power somehow reduces our dependence on imports and therefore increases our energy security. Let's have a look at that.
Firstly, nuclear power, as part of the portfolio alongside gas, coal and renewables, does contribute to the diversity of our electricity supplies. Diversity, it is widely recognised amongst energy-policy experts, is the key to security. I am not disputing that point.
But Lord Jones is going beyond that. He is slipping into the realms of autarky - the false economic notion that we are more secure if we are self-sufficient. Though it is a view that is slipping out increasingly often nowadays (I heard a Merrill Lynch energy analyst make the same error recently, before quickly retreating from it when challenged), it is a view that carries little weight amongst serious analysts. We were never more self-sufficient than when we produced most of our electricity from British coal. And our electricity supplies were never less secure, thanks to the dominant position in which this put the mining unions.
But even if it were a valid position, are Lord Jones's claims true? Are we "used to being largely self-sufficient"? And will we be less dependent on imports if we have nuclear rather than gas or coal?
The answer is "no" to both these questions. We import all our uranium for the nuclear power stations, and we have been importing a large proportion of the coal for our coal-fired power stations since the mid-1980s. We are not used to being self-sufficient, and importing uranium will not make us less dependent on imports than importing other fuels. And if it is "rising demand and prices" that Digby is worried about, he should have a look at uranium prices - a tenfold increase in the last few years makes the increases in fossil-fuel prices look insignificant.
This is not an argument against nuclear. This is only one small part of the issue. But it is an unfounded appeal to economic nationalism that ought not to be part of the debate. It makes one suspicious about the merits of the case for nuclear, if these are the tactics that Lord Jones and his political masters have decided to resort to.