The Brown government has revealed plans for a massive resurgence in the UK nuclear power industry, not just a replacement of existing infrastructure.
Business Minister John Hutton said yesterday that he would like to see Britain's new generation of nuclear stations deliver a greater proportion of the national electricity supply; and he would like the UK to make money supplying the world with fission technology.
"We can clear a path to becoming the No 1 place in the world for companies to do business in new nuclear. That is my ambition for Britain," Hutton said yesterday in a speech to Unite, the super-union produced last year by mergers of older workers' associations.
Hutton was speaking to a receptive audience. Unite, the largest union in the UK, has more than two million relatively well paid and highly-skilled members. It sees the nuclear sector as one of relatively few which might continue to employ such people in Britain.
"The licensing of a new generation of UK nuclear reactors provides UK industry with a fantastic opportunity," said Unite national officer Dougie Rooney.
"It also sends a powerful message to the commercial world and to UK industry that it is safe for it to invest in new facilities, new product designs, training and jobs... there’s also a massive export potential here for UK industry to exploit."
Most of what it costs to buy a kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity - according to Royal Academy of Engineers figures, given here in handy graph form by the BBC - goes on repaying initial capital outlay and on running the plant.
This is also true of wind power, the main renewable technology suited to the UK climate - setting aside the requirement for backup generation to cope with windless days.
However, nuclear technology is much more complex and more heavily regulated. Money would tend - in the unions' analysis - to be sunk into more highly-skilled/white-collar, better paid workforces. Crucially from Unite's viewpoint, these workforces would be more likely to be in the UK; and perhaps even more importantly from a union perspective, they would be concentrated in large, easily organised clumps.
By comparison, the technology of windmills and electric generators is simple. There would be no compelling commercial reason not to offshore most of the manufacturing right away, even in the case of the UK's own kit - and there would be very little prospect of export sales for UK factories, any more than there is now for UK shipyards. Once all the wind farms were built, they would be run by small, scattered groups of comparatively unskilled workers without any huge white collar safety bureaucracy attached to them.
So one can see why the tech and admin unions look to nuclear as their great green/white hope. Just how much of the cake they'll get - as compared to the comparatively well-established French industry - remains to be seen. French President Sarkozy will be discussing this, among other things, at a summit meeting in the UK today.
As one might expect, the orthodox greens are dead set against this kind of thinking. Greenpeace's reaction:
Carla Bruni is not the only one to fall for the eccentric little Frenchman's charms, as Brown panders to his more colorful political counterpart and succumbs to French foreign policy. See, the thing is, Sarkozy has recently been clocking up the air miles promoting nuclear power and selling the technology to emerging markets ... the UK is key to his sales pitch ...
The French do not need to build more nuclear power stations... This is about promoting their industrial philosophy.
The unions, of course, probably quite admire the French industrial philosophy.®